Twenty state-owned bridges that carry upward of 100,000 vehicles daily are among 156 Arkansas spans that inspectors consider both structurally deficient and at risk for a catastrophe should a key component fail, according to records in the National Bridge Inventory.
The bulk of Arkansas bridges considered both deficient and “fracture critical” are located on county roads less traveled, but eight are on significant federal highways and 11 are on Arkansas routes maintained by state transportation officials. Another bridge is on an interstate exit ramp in central Little Rock.
“Bridges now are designed with redundancy. Fracture critical bridges do not have the amount of redundancy that today’s bridges have,” said Randy Ort, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation. “But just because it’s fracture critical, it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.”
The highway department is in charge of inspecting each of the state’s 12,500 bridges and rehabilitating or replacing a span if it is on its network. If bridge is owned by a city or county, it can recommend a number of remedies, including a closure.
At Pocahontas, the northbound U.S. 67 bridge needs to be replaced in the next few years, Pocahontas Mayor Frank Bigger said. Until the 1950s, the bridge spun on an axis to let barge traffic through, attracted attention from crop-duster pilots who would skim beneath it and gave off a familiar clunk-a-clunk-a-clunk as drivers drove over its joints.
“It was almost a soothing sound,” Bigger said. “You knew you were back in town.”
U.S. 67 through downtown Pocahontas handles 25,000 cars daily, though southbound traffic crosses the Black River on the “new” U.S. 67 bridge built 30 years ago, Bigger said. It is among the busiest stretches of road in the state that has a bridge that is both structurally deficient and fracture critical. Other busy highways are the Broadway Bridge in Little Rock, with 24,000 vehicles daily over the Arkansas River, and the U.S. 70 Roosevelt Road bridge, 12,000 crossings over railroad tracks near the state Fair Grounds.
The Pocahontas and Broadway bridges are each scheduled for replacement, as are the U.S. 63 bridge over the Black River at Black Rock, which carries 8,700 vehicles daily, and the Arkansas 7 bridge over the Buffalo River north of Jasper, with 2,400 crossings.
Nationwide, there were 65,605 structurally deficient bridges and 20,808 fracture critical bridges, with 7,795 falling into both categories, according to recent federal data. A bridge is “structurally deficient” when it is in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems that lead inspectors to deem its condition “poor” or worse. A bridge is deemed “fracture critical” when it does not have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails.
Because of the lag time between when states report data for the National Bridge Inventory and the date of its publication, the number of bridges on the list can fluctuate.
Ort said every bridge in Arkansas must be inspected every two years except for those found to have some deficiencies. Of the 156 bridges considered structurally deficient and fracture critical, all but one are inspected annually. The String Town Creek bridge on Sevier County Road 17 near its intersection with County Road 13 is inspected every eight months, but Ort said he wouldn’t call it the worst bridge in the state.
“We are not going to name a “Worse Bridge,” Ort said. “They’re either safe or they’re not, and if they’re not, we’re going to shut them down.”
The state will impose weigh limits on bridges to ensure their safety.
At Pocahontas, three school buses cross the 79-year-old U.S. 67 North bridge daily, ferrying children from the east side of the Black River to schools on the west side. Children on field trips and sports teams add to the total, local school Superintendent Daryl Blaxton said. Over a 180-day school year, there’d be upward of 600 to 700 crossings.
Bigger said he was hopeful there would be some way to preserve the old U.S. 67 North bridge, one of the few remaining active spans that formerly turned in the middle. A railroad span nearby was torn down and upset some people in town.
“This represents an era,” Bigger said. “You could put a restaurant on it and look at the skyline of Pocahontas.
“Now it’s kind of a small skyline,” he said as an aside.