News 4 Investigates: Bridge Inspections - KMOV.com

News 4 Investigates: Bridge Inspections

In our story about St. Louis city inspectors we focused on the concerns raised by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) inspectors with the quality of inspections performed and reports provided by St. Louis city bridge inspectors.

As we pointed out in our story, the city has made three significant changes since 2005 to address specific MODOT's concerns.

First, the St. Louis Board of Public of Service has accepted MODOT's offer to have state inspectors accompany city engineers on bridge inspections.

Second, the BPS has hired a full-time, professional bridge engineer, Bill Early, to oversee inspections and other bridge issues in the city.

Third, BPS has upgraded its systems for collecting and reporting bridge inspection data.

City vs. State

Perhaps you're wondering why MODOT inspectors are so much "better" than city inspectors? Well, it's not that they're "better", it's just that they have a lot more practice, and you know what they say about practice.

MODOT bridge engineers do nothing but work on bridges. MODOT inspectors are responsible for some 16,000 bridges statewide. They are looking at bridges every day, all day, all year long.

St. Louis city inspectors are responsible for about 70 bridges, and while that may sound like a lot to you or me, it's not enough to keep even the city's small crew of three inspectors busy full time.

According to city bridge engineer Bill Early, the city schedules bridge inspections only three days a year. So while city inspectors go through much of the same professional training for bridge inspections as do MODOT inspectors, they just don't get the same amount of practice. That's why BPS welcomes the participation of MODOT engineers during bridge inspections.

Bridges Re-rated

In our report we showed you the Forest Park Parkway bridge at the intersection of Lindell and Union, in Forest Park. The bridge is a prime example of the city-state divide when it comes to bridge inspections.

In 2005, city inspectors rated the bridge a comfortable 61 on a federal scale of 1 to 100. But MODOT inspectors came in and downgraded the bridge to more worrisome 32. These ratings are important in helping agencies establish a priority list for making repairs and scheduling maintenance. The ratings can also be a factor in dertmining eligibility for federal funds. So a downgrade from a rating of 61 to 32 is more than a little noteworthy.

As we reported, the city went on to lower the ratings on several other bridges which had already been inspected by St. Louis city inspectors. Here are the locations of other city bridges which MODOT inspectors felt needed re-evluation and in some cases, lower ratings:

  • Wellington Avenue - (over I-44 at the River Des Peres)
  • Delmar over Metrolink
  • Arsenal (over railroad yard) This bridge has been replaced
  • Kingshighway (just south of I-70) This bridge has been replaced
  • Grand (south of I-64/40, over Metrolink and railroad yard)
  • Jefferson (south of I-64/40, over railroad yard) This bridge is being replaced
  • And Kingshighway (just south of I-44)

    BPS president Marjorie Melton told us she considers this bridge to be one of the worst bridges in the city, perhaps even worse than the Tucker Avenue bridge spotlighted in our report which is now shut down. Still, she considers the Kingshighway bridge safe for traffic. She hopes to replace it soon.

    Should You Be Worried?

    In our story we showed you a lot of pictures of crumbling concrete, exposed support systems, and in one case, massive steel girders which had completely rusted through. So, should you be worred about driving on St. Louis city bridges?

    We flew in a nationally recognized expert on bridges, Dick Stehly of Minneapolis, to tour some of these city bridges. You'll be comforted to know that Dick says you have nothing to worry about. At least, not about a bridge collapsing.

    While he believes that much of the deterioration on city bridges could have been prevented with better maintenance (in some cases as simple as regular painting) he emphasizes that every bridge he saw is safe. The biggest danger to motorists is not of a bridge collapse, but rather of a piece of concrete or steel falling off an overpass or bridge onto a car passing below. The chances of large sections falling are rare, although this actually happened last March in South St. Louis. A huge chunk of concrete railing fell off the Delor overpass, hitting and injuring a 16-year-old driver passing underneath. Her injuries were not life-threatening. That bridge, by the way, was and is the responsibility of MODOT engineers.

    Money, Money, Money.

    The August 1 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is prompting a greater interest in bridge safety. Engineers say all the extra attention is great, but what they really need is more money.

    MODOT wants to address Missouri's critial need for bridge replacement and repair with an innovative plan to bid the work out in a lump project covering several years. The "Safe and Sound" plan is turning heads at bridge and highway departments around the nation.

    In St. Louis, Marjorie Melton says St. Louis needs about $30 million to make all the necessary repairs and replacements. She admits she is not likely to get anywhere near that much.

    But her department did score a recent coup in obtaining $5 million in federal funds for bridge maintenance. This is unusual because federal funds are normally only made available for bridge replacement or repair. The city also recently purchased a $160,000 truck which can be used to spray sealant on bridge decks. Just last month, a crew used the truck for the first time to seal the deck on the Eads Bridge, a process which Bill Early says will be repeated every three years and should help extend the life of the bridge deck.

    Now if only someone had taken the same kind of simple, preventative steps with the girders under the Tucker Avenue bridge, maybe that street would be open to traffic still today.

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