County officials warned Monday that severe deterioration of Newbern Bridge might prompt them to close the span long before it is scheduled for replacement.
School bus drivers in particular, who use the bridge as a shortcut to save time, might be asked to find an alternative route immediately.
More than 800 vehicles use the 103-year-old, one-lane bridge to cross Clifty Creek on County Road 850E every day. The bridge provides access to a mobile home park and several residences along Huffer and Newbern roads, as well as County Road 265N.
“Nobody is going to fall through,” Bartholomew County Highway Engineer Danny Hollander said while inspecting the bridge Monday afternoon. “It would have to see much more distress.”
However, Hollander warned the rate of distress to the bridge appears to be rapidly accelerating because of the number of vehicles exceeding the 3-ton weight limit that routinely cross the bridge daily.
The most significant problems, all on the north side of the bridge, were initially reported last week to county officials by Newbern area resident Cameron Stone — seven months after the last bridge inspection.
“I saw that after the last big snowstorm there was a dip in the bridge, and it’s gotten worse,” Stone said. “It’s actually dropped at least 4 inches in one corner.”
Bartholomew County Commissioners chairman Carl Lienhoop, who has often driven farm equipment across the span, said he inspected the structure on the northwest side of the bridge Sunday. At the commissioners meeting Monday, Lienhoop said he wouldn’t take his combine across it anymore.
The major problem detected Monday was under the north side of the bridge, Hollander said. In particular:
A middle metal stringer stretching from the north side to the first pier had dropped 18 inches from under the deck due to severe rust.
Almost a half-inch of metal had rusted away on the west-side stringer where it connects under the north side of the bridge.
Metal braces on either side of the structure’s width had also broken off from their foundation.
Above the deck, sections of metal latticework that provided support for two vertical support beams on the north side were missing. Hollander could not tell whether the metal had been taken, or whether it had just rusted away.
Metal bolts designed to hold the expansion joint that connects the bridge deck with the north side pavement were sticking straight up. Hollander, who said the bolts could easily puncture the tires of crossing vehicles, ordered that they be immediately cut away.
Monday’s inspection was not as detailed as an in-depth inspection completed in July by an independent engineering firm, Hollander said.
“I hate to say we’re going to close this bridge now,” Hollander said. “We were aware there were issues from our last inspection, but we need to make sure it hasn’t gotten worse since then.”
After the July inspection, the bridge weight limit was lowered to 3 tons. But Stone said many people, including some school bus drivers, ignore the posted limit.
An empty school bus weighs 9 tons, three times the posted weight limit, Lienhoop said.
“I’ve talked to some drivers who say it adds an average of 20 minutes to their morning commute by not going over it, since the closest route is an extra five miles,” Stone said.
Originally, the Newbern bridge was scheduled to be replaced early this year. But last fall, the Indiana Department of Transportation unexpectedly delayed federal funding for the project until the next fiscal year beginning in July, Hollander said.
Under INDOT’s new schedule, bids for the replacement of the Newbern bridge are scheduled to be submitted in September, he said.
“They might be able to move that up to August, but I doubt they’ll be able to move it up any sooner than that,” Hollander said.
Funding for the bridge reconstruction was approved in 2004 but repeatedly delayed. The county has been trying to replace the bridge since 1999. Delays have resulted from archaeological digs, historic studies and problems sorting out who owns various pieces of the right-of-way.
Despite the delays, Stone thinks keeping the current bridge open should not be an option.
“It’s not good for the community to be driving over that,” Stone said. “I know it’s an inconvenience, but (the construction of a new bridge) just needs to be done. Not next year or the year after that. It needs to be done soon.”