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A state Department of Transportation bridge inspector checked the state-maintained bridge at U.S. 31 and Cedar Creek last week. The bridge's structural condition is rated higher than either of the city-maintained bridges in Hartselle.
Daily photo by Eric Fleischauer
A state Department of Transportation bridge inspector checked the state-maintained bridge at U.S. 31 and Cedar Creek last week. The bridge's structural condition is rated higher than either of the city-maintained bridges in Hartselle.


Hartselle bridges among area's worst

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

German U-Boats hammered British ships, long-distance phone service began from New York to San Francisco and a bridge was erected on Sparkman Street in Hartselle over Shoal Creek.

The year was 1915. The U-boats are gone and the phone wires have long since been replaced, but more than 2,000 cars a day continue to drive over the ailing Shoal Creek bridge.

The bridge is one of several in the area that remain open despite significant structural defects. Two of the county's worst are in Hartselle, and they are the only two bridges Hartselle is responsible for maintaining.

The Shoal Creek bridge is in "poor condition," according to the National Bridge Inventory.

Despite its poor condition, and despite the fact that the bridge has "critical" components whose failure could cause collapse, the bridge is on a two-year inspection schedule, the norm for much healthier bridges.

The most recent inspection, in May, revealed vertical cracks in the bridge's abutments.

The inspector recommended Hartselle request that an Alabama Department of Transportation inspection team place monitoring devices on the cracks to measure whether they are worsening.

"I grew up there. I used to play on that bridge, and those cracks have looked like that for a long time," said Hartselle Department of Development Director Jeff Johnson, who has not requested DOT monitoring assistance. "I think it's a sturdy bridge."

But, he said Thursday, "I need to get a bridge inspection team here. In fact, I was going to make a call on that. I suppose I'll call within the next week. At the latest."

Hartselle owns and is responsible for the bridge, but Johnson said the May inspection results were the first he had seen, despite previous determinations that the bridge was in poor condition.

"Professional inspectors were submitting it to professional DOT folks," Johnson said. "With us not having any feedback, this is the first I'd heard about any problems."

He said he had no answer for why he did not seek results from previous inspections, which Hartselle contracted.

"If someone tells me to do something, I'll do it," Johnson said. "Prior to this I had no feedback."

On a 100-point scale, the bridge's sufficiency rating is 26.2 percent. It is, according to the most recent inspection, "structurally deficient."

The other bridge Hartselle is responsible for maintaining is at the junction of Thompson Road and the railroad tracks. Built in 1962, the bridge carries more than 5,300 cars a day.

Like the Sparkman Street bridge, it is rated as being in poor condition and is structurally deficient. Its structural sufficiency rating is 22.1 percent.

Structural sufficiency

"Structural sufficiency" ratings and "structurally deficient" determinations, much bandied about since a Minneapolis bridge with a 50 rating collapsed recently, are deceptive.

"In and of itself, being classified as structurally deficient does not mean a bridge is unsafe," said George Conner, assistant state maintenance engineer at DOT. "Likewise, a low grade on a sufficiency scale does not mean a bridge is unsafe."

The National Bridge Inventory is a compilation of hundreds of pieces of data regarding nearly every bridge in the United States. It has many purposes, but a major one is funding prioritization.

With some exceptions, a prerequisite for federal funding is a finding that a bridge is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Lower sufficiency ratings increase a bridge's eligibility for federal funding.

Because of the funding purpose, structural sufficiency ratings are based on a formula that includes structural problems like those found in the Hartselle bridges, but includes other factors that are unrelated to the risk of collapse.

High traffic, for example, pushes down the sufficiency rating. The greater the detour that would be required if the bridge is closed, the lower the sufficiency rating. The theory, Conner explained, is to give greater funding preference to more important bridges.

A better gauge of a bridge's soundness is how an inspector evaluated its structural condition. Five bridges in the county are in poor condition. Only the two Hartselle bridges carry more than 50 cars a day.

The southbound U.S. 231 bridge spanning the Tennessee River, built in 1931, carries 11,321 cars a day. Its sufficiency rating is 8.7.

"On that bridge there are members that are rusted, that are deteriorated," said Conner. "I doubt there's a truss on it that hasn't been hit (by a vehicle) at some time or other."

Structurally, however, it is in "fair condition," a step better than the Minneapolis bridge before its collapse. High traffic rates and inconvenient detour routes decrease its sufficiency rating, thus increasing its eligibility for federally funded replacement.

Conner insists that state-maintained bridges are safe. DOT, he said, has the ultimate tools to keep them that way: load limits and closure.

That said, both tools wreak economic havoc.

"To really solve these problems, we need more funding," Conner said. "Our infrastructure needs are bigger than our funding. That's not making a plea, it's just a fact."

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