Many people, concerned about both Sligo bridge and Hurricane bridge, let their voices be heard Wednesday evening during a town hall meeting at city hall, held by State Senator Mae Beavers and State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver.
Some blamed the Bredesen administration and TDOT for not addressing the problems, some accused Beavers and Weaver of not doing more, but all want the bridges either fixed or replaced as soon as possible. If not, local officials fear that DeKalb County's economy could suffer more setbacks with lost jobs and less tourism.
Weight limits were recently posted on Hurricane bridge which is now apparently forcing industries to use alternate routes to access the Interstate to transport their products by trucks. Other small businessmen and loggers who use large trucks, speaking during Wednesday night's meeting, say they too will suffer economic hardships.
Representative Weaver and Senator Beavers have been criticized by some who feel they should have voted for the state budget and or the bridge bonding bill, and that the Bredesen administration and or TDOT is delaying the local bridge projects because of it.
However both Weaver and Beavers insist that this is not the case and that Paul Degges, Chief Engineer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation confirmed it in a meeting with them this week.
Representative Weaver said she has always supported the bridge projects locally, but opposed the bonding bill because she didn't want to put the state in more debt, especially when it wasn't a sure thing that Sligo bridge would be included. Weaver says she believes the state should continue to follow the "pay as you go approach". "The rumor has been going around that I did not support the bridge because I did not vote for the bonding. That is absolutely not the case. The bonding bill passed. The money is there. The money has always been there for the bridge. So it's not a matter of money. It's a matter of prioritizing."
Senator Beavers also defended her vote against the bonding bill, " There was talk it (Sligo bridge) would be in the (federal) stimulus package. It was but got taken out because the right of way acquisition was not complete. I didn't vote to put the state in debt by bonding bridges and as it's proven out we wouldn't have gotten the bridge (Sligo) this year anyway because it (project) simply wasn't ready. I don't apologize for being a conservative. I'm conservative with my money and I'm going to be conservative with your money. Paul Degges says we have two or three years before we have to address the issue of Sligo bridge but those bridges (Sligo and Hurricane) are on our priority list and they will be done. We've worked on it. TDOT is working on it. Everybody is doing what they can to get it done as fast as we can."
Among the critics during Wednesday night's meeting was former State Representative Frank Buck, who said that the Bredesen administration and TDOT have known about the problems with Sligo bridge since at least 2006, but apparently have done little to address it. Buck says he doesn't trust the administration on this issue and doesn't believe they intend to do anything. And while admitting that he wished he could have done more to advance the project during his time in office, Buck still criticized Senator Beavers and Representative Weaver saying basically if the administration won't cooperate then we should be able to count on them for help.
Later in the meeting, Ed Wasserman, TDOT Director of Structures, addressed the safety issue regarding Sligo bridge. Apparently there are at least two layers of concrete on the bridge and the layer underneath is breaking up. "Specifically with regard to the Sligo bridge, it is safe as long as you observe the posted loads that are on that bridge. Your concerns about the chunks of concrete coming off ( from under the bridge). That is more of an emotional issue than a structural issue. They way that slab works is that it is the re-enforcing steel in the bottom that carries the load. The concrete on the top carries the compression load, the bottom is the tension steel. That steel is all intact. The primary purpose for the cover on the bottom is to protect the steel. The steel is still in good shape. It would be more desirable if it (concrete) was all there but the point of it is it carries the same load with or without it. The bridge is still safe. We're still monitoring the bridge on a frequency of about every six months. So the bridge is safe as it is. The netting up there (under the bridge) is because we don't want concrete chunks falling on the boaters or whoever else is underneath the bridge."
"With regard to the Hurricane bridge, if you observe the postings that are on it, then the bridge is perfectly safe."As to the scheduling of things, these are very expensive structures, we have a limited overall amount of money to deal with statewide. While you have every right to be concerned and feel that your bridge is the top priority in the state, there are people in other areas in the state with a bridge in similar condition and they feel theirs needs to be top priority. We are going to keep your bridges safe until such time as they get replaced on whatever schedule that works out to be. If the revenue stream continues, then we're going to be able to get to your bridges, both of them."
"In the case of Sligo, you opted for replacement. At one time we offered that we could rehabilitate the bridge, require a closure of about a month and a half or two months initially followed by one lane traffic for about eighteen months, and with that we could strengthen the Sligo bridge and put it back in non-posted condition, but the public opinion that reached us was that this really wasn't acceptable, you wanted a new bridge. A new bridge costs considerably more and will take longer to get the funds. With the Hurricane bridge, it will be repaired because there's not any chance that we can afford to replace that bridge."
Wasserman said that neither bridge had deteriorated to the point that they would have to be closed and added that the state would spend funds to do emergency repairs to keep the open if need be.
Senator Beavers told WJLE Wednesday morning that "They're (TDOT) doing the analysis right now (on Hurricane Bridge) to see what kind of steel and bolts were used so they have a better idea just what the status of the bridge is. It may come down to removing those extra lanes that they put on a few years ago. They are in the process of trying to find out exactly what they need to do on that bridge."
One of the concerned citizens who spoke during the meeting was Brian Terry of Smithville. Afterwards, he talked with WJLE. "My concern is that everybody knows that the bridge is in disrepair. Obviously, they wouldn't be having these meetings and planning it without it. What they have is estimates and estimates are not 100%. The bridge that failed in Minnesota, I'm sure they had estimates on that. They were in the process of repairing it when it failed. I'm just concerned that too much time is going to get wasted with political maneuvering and we're going to get a couple of tractor trailers that are overloaded that are going to go over it (bridge) and weaken it and then the next morning two or three school buses will go over it and it collapses. There is no amount of political agenda or budget or anyone's personal pride that's worth a school bus full of children."
Director of Schools Mark Willoughby says this too is a concern for him. "I became aware that there was a 10 ton limit posted on Hurricane Bridge. Our buses are basically 10 tons. So we're going to have to make some adjustments. We're going to talk to the Department of Transportation as early as possible. Tonight, we've been told by the director of structural division of Tennessee's Department of Transportation that it is okay to operate a passenger bus across Hurricane bridge. I am going to get in contact with the people at the Tennessee Department of Transportation and get it clarified maybe a little bit more."
After the meeting, Senator Beavers said she understood the people's frustrations. "People are very upset in this county as they should be. We got what answers we could out of TDOT on Monday when we met with them and we feel assured that they are going to address this bridge in the near future. I think people here just wanted some answers. They just want to know that their children are safe crossing that bridge. These trucking companies want to know that they are not going to be out of business tomorrow because the bridge has to be closed. I certainly understand the feelings of the people up here. We're going to continue to work as hard as we can to try and get things going. The specific language in the budget this year said that the TDOT commissioner would make the call on the priorities on bridges so that's who people need to contact. They need to contact the commissioner of Transportation and ask him to make the Sligo bridge and now the Hurricane bridge priorities because I think we're in a desperate situation up here with the economy, with businesses perhaps having to move out of your county. Your representatives are very concerned about it and working every day to try and get it done."
Representative Weaver also called for more public input. "This is a hot issue. This is an item of concern. I'm working as hard as I know to work. I made a plea that we need more voices and more people to be involved. I want people to know that it is not one person who makes the call here. It takes many. It takes a team. So I welcome the calls to the Governor's office. I welcome the calls to the TDOT commissioner's office from the constituents who travel those bridges. I know how serious this is. We're talking about safety and jobs, not to mention the tourism and the people that want to come up here and enjoy the lake."
Weaver says she also paid a call on Fred Edgington, plant manager of Star Manufacturing this week, who is concerned about how the status of the bridges is affecting his company. "I wanted to introduce myself to him and let him know that I was extremely concerned about the job situation. I picked Star because of the truck route that they were using. As far as the re-route on these bridges, an eighteen wheeler could come by way of Highway 96 (Dale Ridge Road) but it's extremely dangerous to do that with the way the road is. The reroute on that is like 70 miles. He's got to pay the driver and for extra fuel so there's added costs and if that gets to be too much of an inconvenience, he'll have to cut costs somewhere else. So it is a serious issue."