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Summer sees bridge repairs across region

BY DAVID ZOELLERdzoeller@paducahsun.com

As any driver knows, summer is road construction season.

And, to anyone driving around Paducah and western Kentucky on a regular basis, this summer also has been bridge repair season.

Whether it was repair work on the Interstate 24 Ohio River Bridge between Paducah and Metropolis, Illinois; the closure and/or repair of the U.S. 45 Irvin Cobb Bridge connecting Paducah and Brookport, Illinois; the new Eggner's Ferry Bridge in Trigg and Marshall counties under construction; or what seemed like daily updates on land slippage and the ultimate collapse of part of the old Ledbetter Bridge which connects McCracken and Livingston counties, bridges have been front and center.

"It's just a constant, ongoing effort during (summer) construction season," said Keith Todd, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman. "Our guys are out doing as much as they can for as long as they can."

The Associated Press reported last September that more than 100 Kentucky bridges had advanced deterioration and were at risk of collapsing, citing data from the National Bridge Inventory. A bridge is deemed "fracture critical" when it does not have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. 

A bridge is "structurally deficient" when it is in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems that lead inspectors to deem its condition "poor" or worse. 

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, 1,244 of Kentucky's 14,031 bridges (8.9 percent) are considered structurally deficient, and 3,219 of the 14,031 bridges (22.9 percent) are considered functionally obsolete.

According to Todd, bridge inventory numbers can be deceiving.

"It's not like we're not making any headway," he said. "About the time you get one replaced, there is another one that comes on the list that needs to be replaced. ... There's a certain amount of churn among those projects."

Many of Kentucky's bridges were built in the 1920s, with the idea they would last 80-100 years, Todd said, noting "we're getting into that window."

The transportation cabinet has funds for bridges, and in some cases there are federal matching funds available, Todd said. The state's road plan used to be commonly referred to as a six-year plan, because the Federal Highway Administration asks states to plan that many years ahead, according to Todd.

"It's really a two-year plan, because only the first two years are actually funded," he said, referring to the state's every two years budget cycle.

Through inter-agency agreements, one state will take responsibility for making bridge repairs, while the other state pays part of the cost. On the I-24 bridge, the Illinois Department of Transportation made the repairs, while Kentucky chipped in on the cost. Kentucky takes care of repairs on the U.S. 51 bridge between Wickliffe and Cairo, while Illinois contributes to the cost.

An exception is the Brookport Bridge, which Kentucky is responsible for outright, since its ownership predates the inter-agency agreement, Todd said.

The way bridges are built today is not the only thing that has changed since the older bridges were constructed. Social media weren't around then. 

"We took a beating in social media when we worked on the Brookport Bridge," Todd said, referring to the time the city closed the structure to construct an underpass connecting two sections of the Greenway Trail in Paducah.

"If you don't do maintenance, if you don't fix the bridge, at some point it's going to have to be closed for good. At some point, it will catch up to you."

Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.  

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