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No replacement for Courtland bridges in sight

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

More than two years after being told that parts of one heavily traveled bridge are in critical condition and another bridge is in serious condition, Courtland Mayor Ted Letson said the town cannot afford to repair them.

He has not applied for state or federal funding.

The bridges are on Jefferson Street, west of downtown. One spans Southern Railroad. Built in 1927, it carries 1,100 vehicles a day 40 feet above the tracks. It is about 211 feet long. The other, 393 feet long and built in 1926, runs about 25 feet over Big Nance Creek.

On a scale of 1 to 100, the railroad bridge has a sufficiency rating of 6. The Big Nance Creek bridge has a rating of 18.9.

Portions of the deck and superstructure of the railroad bridge are rated in “critical condition.” That means, according to state guidelines, they are demonstrating “advanced deterioration of primary structural elements.”

A Minneapolis bridge that collapsed Aug. 1 had a rating of 50 on a 1 to 100 scale. Its superstructure — the portion of the bridge above the ground but below the deck — had a higher rating than the Courtland bridges.

Both Courtland bridges are rated “structurally deficient” by the state. According to a state Department of Transportation database, only 26 bridges in the state are rated lower than the railroad bridge. Only 41 are rated lower than the Big Nance Creek bridge.

There are more than 17,000 bridges in the state.

Courtland placed signs imposing a 3-ton weight limit on the bridges after a state inspection team recommended the move two years ago, but vehicles above that weight — including large SUVs and delivery trucks — routinely traverse the bridges.

“That limit’s just to be extra careful,” Letson said. “They drop that weight limit really low just for precautions.”

The bridge inspector said it is a limit that drivers ignore at their peril.

“You have to be fairly concerned,” said Chris Barnwell, whose firm inspected the bridges in March.

If Barnwell rated the bridges any lower, the state would force Courtland to close them, cutting off a major thoroughfare.

The concrete columns that support the railroad bridge are riddled with deep cracks. Steel rebar is exposed, and 4-foot-long hunks of concrete, broken from the bridge, lie on the ground below.

“The deterioration of the concrete in those areas may not be load-bearing,” Barnwell said of the concrete sections that have fallen off the bridge’s underside. “I’m sure it’s bad, though.”

Letson said he hasn’t applied to the DOT for funding because he is not sure what the town should do with the railroad bridge.

“We didn’t know for sure what we were going to do to it, to be honest with you. We’re still trying to get the railroad to help,” Letson said. “We thought it might be cheaper to tear the bridge down and have a crossing there than to do that.”

He said he has not obtained an estimate on replacing the bridges, a prerequisite to an application for DOT funding.

“Our engineer’s supposed to be looking at it,” Letson said, “but he’s got some other projects he’s working on.”

Barnwell said replacing the bridges could cost as much as $6 million.

Courtland, solely responsible for maintaining the bridges, has a population of 833.

“The state and the railroad ought to be responsible for part of it. If the railroad doesn’t want to do it, we can tear this bridge down and have a crossing there. I don’t think they’d want that. I’m going to set up a meeting with the railroad.”

He said the railroad turned down a previous request for assistance.

The state gave the bridges — already in poor condition — to Courtland a decade ago. It was not a welcomed gift.

Barnwell said the only temporary measure that might help the bridges would be to reduce the amount of asphalt on them. Letson said he is investigating rental of a machine to remove asphalt.

The asphalt on the bridges is at least 8 inches thick, said Barnwell. This is “dead weight,” he said, that comes to 800 pounds per square yard. For the Big Nance bridge, that’s 419 tons of dead weight. For the railroad bridge, that’s 225 tons, all sitting on 80-year-old concrete supports, with your car on top.

“Really they just need to be replaced,” Barnwell said. “With each inspection, you can see more and more deterioration. Eventually, unless funding’s secured, I’m sure they will have to be closed.”

Both bridges have problems, Barnwell said, but the railroad bridge is in most urgent need of replacement.

“It’s got by far the most deterioration,” he said.

Even without deterioration, the bridges would be inadequate for modern traffic.

“They were built to carry the loads of that day,” Barnwell said.

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