A study by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet recommends replacing the U.S. 51 Ohio River bridge, which connects Ballard County with Cairo, Ill., at an estimated cost of $236.2 million.
A new bridge immediately upstream and within a mile of the current structure is proposed to tie into existing roads in Kentucky and Illinois.
The bridge that carries U.S. 51, U.S. 60, and U.S. 62 traffic across the river is functionally obsolete and structurally deficient, according to the study.
"That does not mean it is unsafe," said cabinet spokesman Keith Todd. "That means if we were building a new bridge today it would look very different than what you see there now."
The bridge has a good traffic safety record, according to the cabinet study. However, there have been a number of wrecks at the Illinois end of the bridge at the intersection of the three highways, and the curve at the Kentucky end of the bridge has an elevated wreck rate.
Following a previous inspection and load rating analysis, transportation officials assigned the bridge a sufficiency rating of 39.8 on a scale of 100.
"Anything below 50 qualifies for federal bridge replacement funds," said Todd.
One of the factors in considering bridge replacement is the distance area residents would have to travel if the existing bridge were closed. According to the study, if the existing bridge were not available, the detour between Wickcliffe and Cairo increases the drive from seven to 80-plus miles each direction. That would pose a hardship for Cairo residents driving to work in Kentucky as well as Kentucky farmers transporting crops and livestock to the interstates and ports in Illinois, the study notes.
According to the study, the 2013 daily average traffic on the bridge is 5,400 vehicles per day, with approximately 35 percent of that number trucks.
According to Todd, the bridge opened in 1936 under the Cairo Bridge Commission as a toll bridge and was taken over by Kentucky and Illinois transportation agencies in 1948 when the tolls were removed.
Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.