Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Little did anybody know that this brief lane closure would herald the indefinite closure of the entire bridge two days later. The Sherman Minton Bridge carries 93,000 vehicles per day on average, or roughly 40% of the total traffic crossing the Ohio River at Louisville. The sudden loss of this bridge has forced commuters to rely on the Kennedy and Clark bridges, creating a "Carmageddon" situation to rival anything out of Los Angeles.
A technical advisory from the Federal Highway Administration explains what happened. The bridge, completed 1961, was built with "T-1 steel" which is susceptible to cracking. Previous inspections had found cracking at some of the welds, prompting more thorough inspections and repair work this year.
The advisory states, "On September 8, 2011, inspectors discovered an additional critical crack in the tension tie that previously could not be seen through visual inspection because of the removal of a connection plate detail as part of the ongoing retrofit process... After study and analysis of this newly found crack, it was determined that an unacceptable level of risk to the traveling public was associated with the continued operation of the bridge."
It seems likely that the bridge will remain out of commission for months, even years, and there's a chance it could never reopen.
Meanwhile, drivers stuck in traffic couldn't help but notice that some cars were traveling across the Kentucky & Indiana Bridge, a railroad bridge that includes two roadway decks along the sides. These cars were driven by railroad employees who were granted the perk of using the bridge to get to work.
Historically, the K&I carried highway traffic until the northbound road deck was damaged by an overweight truck in 1979. This damage was never repaired.
If railroad employees could use the bridge, then why not the general public? That's been a hot topic of discussion, spawning a Facebook campaign to have the bridge's road decks repaired and reopened to everybody. At least one local politicians is asking the same question.
The owners of the bridge, Norfolk Southern, are naturally worried about liability and safety. But if the bridge is unsafe, then why let employees use it? Hoping to avoid a PR disaster, the railroad has now announced that it will no longer let employees use the bridge.
In 2005, civic leaders discussed using the K&I Bridge as part of a bicycle/pedestrian trail network, but this idea was vehemently opposed by the railroad.
The K&I Bridge is similar to the Harahan Bridge in Memphis with abandoned road decks along the sides. It was recently discovered, however, that Memphis still owned the road decks. Plans are underway to reopen the Harahan Bridge for pedestrian use -- and the railroad can't stop it. That probably isn't an option for Louisville and the K&I Bridge, unless a sharp lawyer can find an old document showing that the public has a right to use the bridge.
Does the city have any other options? Louisville is working on restoring the Big Four Railroad Bridge for pedestrian/bicycle use, but that project won't be completed until 2013. The only other available bridge, the Falls of the Ohio Railroad Bridge, still actively carries trains. It does have some extra room (one of the two tracks is abandoned), but not enough for any practical use.
Thus, it seems that Louisville is in a real pickle.