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Eleven bridges in Bexar are ‘structurally deficient’

by Patrick Driscoll and John Tedesco
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John Ramirez drives across the Walters Street bridge over Interstate 35 almost every day, and over the years has noticed workers adding asphalt again and again.

They must have added 10 inches of blacktop by now just to keep it level, he says.

“They completely cap it over with asphalt.”

The bridge near Fort Sam Houston was recently deemed structurally deficient, joining 10 other such problem bridges in Bexar County, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

The Texas Department of Transportation says the bridge is slowly sinking.

The section of I-35W that buckled into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on Wednesday, killing at least four people, had the same rating.

A deficient bridge has structural damage or isn’t as strong as it should be. It isn’t necessarily unsafe but could be, and officials often need to restrict traffic and weight loads.

“Like everything that gets older, there’s some deterioration, but that doesn’t mean that the bridge is unsafe,” said Joseph Yura, a University of Texas at Austin professor who specializes in structural steel design. “If it gets to the point of being unsafe, it’s going to be closed.”

But sometimes, as in the case of Wednesday’s disaster, bridges aren’t fixed or closed soon enough. On Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters called for a top-to-bottom review of the nation’s bridge inspection program.

“What happened in Minnesota is simply unacceptable,” she said in a statement.

Of 596,842 bridges nationwide, 12 percent, or 73,764, are deficient, federal records show.

Of 49,518 in Texas, 4 percent, or 2,219, have that rating.

In Bexar County, about 31,100 vehicles a day roll over bridges flagged as deficient. Another 500 bridges — one in four — show signs of needing repairs.

The deficient bridge with the most traffic is also the most dangerous: Old U.S. 90 where it goes over U.S. 90 near Lackland AFB.

The bridge, built in 1965, handles 10,760 cars a day. Two beams have been cracked by overloaded trucks smacking into them, and in 2002 state officials closed one of the two lanes and limited weight to 40,000 pounds, almost as much as a fully loaded VIA Metropolitan Transit bus.

“It doesn’t mean it’s going to collapse,” said John Kilgore, TxDOT’s bridge engineer in San Antonio.

But it will be replaced, and soon, he said.

By early next year, $30 million worth of construction will be under way to replace the worst bridges in Bexar County: Old U.S. 90, Walters Street, the frontage road on the south side of I-10 over Martinez Creek, and the San Jacinto Street span over Alazan Creek.

“We don’t want to wait 10 years from now when it is a safety issue,” Kilgore said.

The Hays Street Bridge over railroad tracks and Henderson Pass over U.S. 281 will never be open to cars again, he said. And no changes are planned for several historic bridges.

TxDOT ramped up bridge repair efforts in 2001, requiring at least 80 percent of bridges to be in good or better condition within a decade. That has steadily increased to 77 percent as of September 2006, the agency said in a report last year.

The goal was set a month before a towboat captain lost control of four barges in a strong current and slammed into the bridge leading to South Padre Island. The force caused the midsection of the Queen Isabella Causeway to tumble into the water 85 feet below. Motorists drove blindly into the chasm in the road and eight people died.

The 2001 accident ultimately was blamed on heavy currents, pilot error, and insufficient horsepower for the load.

Despite settling into clay and shifting, the Walters Street bridge remains open to traffic as usual, some thousands of cars a day.

“It looks pretty ugly,” Kilgore said. “But it’s not necessarily a safety issue, it’s a maintenance issue. If we continue to not do something, then it’ll become a serious concern.”

Ramirez, who has watched the bridge sink over the years, isn’t worried. But his friend Elridge Nelson wasn’t so sure.

“Of course I’m concerned,” he said. “But I can’t live my life worrying about everything that might happen.”

Ramirez pasted on a grin and offered the last word:

“Good luck,” he said. “Be careful on the bridges.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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