The Tennessee Department of Transportation is developing design plans for the rehabilitation of Hurricane Bridge with a possible bid letting this fall if funding becomes available.
Paul Degges, Chief Engineer for TDOT said Friday night during a meeting at Smithville City Hall that he is hopeful the project is ready in time for a September bid letting. "We are working at an accelerated pace on this project to be able to have plans available, should money become available about the same time. We will have plans ready this fall probably around the first of September. However, I want to stress that the funding of this project, while it is a top priority in the department and we know it is an important project, there is a funding component to it. We're going to have to have the funding made available to the department to be able to deliver the project to construction."
According to Degges, the price tag for the Hurricane bridge rehab project is estimated to be between $12 to $15 million, a large expenditure with limited available state and federal funds. "Our bridge funding program is pretty modest. In fact, this year we'll probably have less than $50 million dollars of federal funds available to us in our bridge program and somewhere in the vicinity of $30 million in our state bridge program."
However, Degges says TDOT's Better Bridges Program, adopted by the General Assembly last year, makes more funds available for projects like this. "Better Bridges" is a four year program approved in 2009 by the Tennessee General Assembly that utilizes bonds to pay for the repair or replacement of structurally deficient bridges in the state. The legislature must act to authorize funding each year of the program. "We were fortunate this year, the General Assembly passed a bridge bonding program to put another $87.5 million in our bridge program. So between those three components (federal, state, and bonding) hopefully in fiscal year 2011 starting July 1st, we'll have a similar program to allow us to pump a lot of money toward bridges that are in this category." Neither Hurricane bridge or Sligo bridge were included in the bridge bonding program during the first year.
Degges stressed that in order for any bridge project to be funded, design plans must first be in place."It takes a certain amount of time to do the design work. This is a pretty intricate structure. It has a lot of components and it takes a while to develop a set of plans. We actually have a consultant hired that's doing this work for us. It's moving along quite fast."
Unlike Sligo, the state will be looking to do a rehab on Hurricane bridge, not a replacement. And while both bridges remain safe to travel under posted weight limits, Degges says TDOT will likely give Hurricane bridge priority over Sligo bridge. "Certainly this bridge is one of what I would call a priority project across the state. It is very difficult to develop just a list (of priority bridges). There's a lot of different factors that come into play when you're talking about what is a relative priority but it (Hurricane bridge) is an important structure in the region. We feel that a ten ton weight limit on a bridge like this is certainly very difficult to have to live with. We want to be able to come in and put this bridge back in service at legal loads."
"This bridge (Hurricane) was built in 1944 and in the late 1970's the department came in and put a new bridge deck on it. We actually widened it. We met the design specifications at the time. Since that time, the design specifications for bridges have changed, particularly in the aftermath of the failure (of a bridge) in Minneapolis. Truss bridges in particular have been looked at a whole lot harder in the last couple of years. So we're having to go back in and based on these new design criteria, look at this bridge. This will be a rehab. We'll do a lot of work on the concrete deck. We need to narrow the shoulders a little bit and then strengthen some of the truss members underneath the bridge."
In the meantime, Degges says TDOT and the county have come up with a plan to limit weight loads on Hurricane by escorting trucks with heavy cargo across the bridge. "The department came up and met with the business officials, business leaders, and local elected officials up here about a month and a half or two months ago. What we agreed to do was sharpen our pencils and go back and look at our analysis and make sure that we were where we needed to be on the weight posting. We also committed to looking at the feasibility of putting a traffic signal on the bridge and allowing one lane at a time to go. So we went back and did that and found that we were right on target on our weight posting. We might could squeak another couple of tons out of it but that really didn't solve what the industries needs were."
"We looked at putting a one lane scenario up with a traffic signal but we felt that while we could double the weight load of a truck going across the bridge, there was a lot of negatives to it including a lot of delay time. You have people coming down the big hill, coming in from I-40. So what we came up with was, "what if there was only one vehicle on that bridge at a time?" What we found was that we can carry a full legal load across the bridge. So what we starting talking with the (county) mayor about was, how about us coming in and working with law enforcement of some sort, and basically escorting vehicles across the bridge one at a time. By doing that, industries could bring a full load across the bridge. We wouldn't have any significant delays to any other motorists using the bridge. So we think we have a solution that will work. We've worked with the county mayor to make sure that we've come up with a working solution that the county can live with. Right now, we're in the final stages of mapping that scenario out, seeing if there is a way we can fund it working with the county, what are the logistics, and who are the industries that are going to be doing this, so that's where we are. We are in the final throws in trying to get this solution. We think it will work and then ultimately we're going to have to come in and do the construction work on the bridge. When we finish the construction work, it'll be ready for a full legal load."
Once construction begins on Hurricane bridge, Degges says short term lane closures might be required. "We might have to have some short term total closures but what we think what we'll be able to do is to end up with a scenario where we put up a traffic signal and go down to one lane on it. We know that's going to be difficult but one of the things we want to come and do is before we make a final decision on traffic control, we want to come back up to the community and talk to the residents and business owners about the different options we have in traffic control and what would be the best scenario for this community."
Few attended the meeting Friday evening, which was intended primarily for local and state officials and industry representatives. Still, State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver, who helped set up the meeting, said it was a good forum. "It's another venue of communication. I had a meeting in my office last week with Paul Degges and he said I would like to come to your area and have a meeting. We called the industry people and let them know we were having a meeting here so he could address them and keep the communication moving forward. This is not a political issue. It matters not what side of the aisle you're on. It matters that we get the bridge done and that's why I think it's important to keep the community informed."
State Senator Mae Beaver, who was also at the meeting, said she is encouraged by the progress that's being made on the bridges. "I think it gives everyone a glimmer of hope that we are just about ready to get underway with these bridges. TDOT has helped figure out a way to get the traffic across the bridge temporarily, all the heavy loads and looking at a September letting on the Hurricane bridge so I think that's really good news for everyone. It looks like things are moving right along. Of course on the Sligo bridge, Terri Lynn and I met with Senator Lamar Alexander's staff and he is working on getting the rest of the money. We have $1.5 million now setting over at TDOT waiting to be used that they can start on. We're just looking for the rest of the money and we think it will be forthcoming."