From Bridges to Borders: How Carelessness is destroying our (Historic) Bridges

Taken by Bradley Widding; used with permission

It is a scene that drives everyone up the wall: a driver turns off the main highway onto a gravel road in an overweight truck carrying a trailer with oversized equipment. The total weight is 9 tons with the maximum height of 14 feet. He approaches a through truss bridge, whose vertical clearance is 13 feet and has a weight limit of 3 tons. The driver has taken his truck across the structure many times as it serves as a shortcut to his destination, plus the Pratt structure built in 1890 represents a picturesque view of the river valley. While he sees a weight restriction sign, he disregards it and goes across it, only to find that the whole structure swayed side-to-side and as he managed to get off the bridge, the whole structure fell into the river! He gets out of the truck and surveys the damage only to react with the words “……!”  (I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks).

This happened to the Fryer’s Ford Bridge in Conway County, Arkansas this past Monday, as the driver of an H20 Transfer Service truck carrying a trailer with a hose track dropped the truss bridge into the water as he was getting off. Although he claimed that he had crossed the bridge many times before, this time was definitely his last; especially because of the fact that he was later ticketed for driving an oversized vehicle on the bridge and is expected to face more legal action in the coming days. While the bridge may be rebuilt as it sustained minimal damage from the photos taken at the scene, the Wrought Iron Bridge Company structure will be reduced to recreational use only as it will never be able to serve vehicular traffic ever again. And it will be unfortunate as it was the oldest bridge of its kind still in operation in Arkansas before the accident took place.

This scene has been played out many times over again throughout the country as the infrastructure in the US is crumbling to a point where the country is on the same level as a third world country, such as Uganda, Sudan, or even Libya. The latest report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded the infrastructural system in the country as a whole a D, with the bridges being graded a C. However, when it comes to awareness of historic structures and ways to preserve them, let alone inform the public about the restrictions historic bridges have- especially with regards to weight limits- the grade for that one is D- at best; ironic given the fact that the literacy rate in the US is 99%, and one can obtain information everywhere at any time. Why is this the case?

There are two arguments that play a role in the problem with historic bridges and awareness. The first is with regards to the lack of maintenance. Normally for structures, like the Fryer’s Ford Bridge or any bridge to be exact, one has to find ways of maintaining the structures as they are. This means that they must be inspected regularily, repairs must be done when and where needed, and in case the bridge may approach the end of its useful life, one must try and prolong it as long as possible, which includes rehabilitating it at a fraction of the cost of replacing it with another bridge- at least a quarter of the cost to be exact. That means for a historic bridge, the cost for rehabilitating a structure like the one in Arkansas could range from $20,000 to $120,000 pending on what needs to be done with it, which could include new flooring, strengthening the beams and other connections and painting it so that it is rust resistant. By replacing the bridge outright with a concrete span, the cost could go up to $500,000, which in the end, tax payers will be footed the bill. Should restrictions be needed, they should be posted accordingly, and fines should be imposed on drivers caught disregarding the restrictions. Unfortunately though, most of the time this happens when it is too late.

Putting historic bridges aside, there have been many bridge failures due to the lack of maintenance and the lack of information on the structures and their capabilities to handle traffic. A couple of regional examples coming to mind include the partial collapse of a bridge carrying a county highway south of Brewster, Minnesota on the Nobles and Jackson County borders on 19 October, 2010, as a milling machine was on the bridge during the construction of the county road. One half fell through leaving the other one open to one way traffic only. That bridge is scheduled to be replaced this year. The other example is the collapse of a Kingpost pony truss bridge in western Winneshiek County in Iowa in 1995, after a county maintenance vehicle crossed it. And then there is the infamous I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, a cantilever deck truss bridge that failed because of too much equipment on the structure. This disaster in particular served as a wake-up call to look at the American infrastructure and its dire state.

Transversal view of the county bridge near Brewster. Photo taken by Brian Korthals of the Worthington Daily Globe, used with permission
The Milling Machine being removed from the wreckage. Photo taken by Brian Korthals of the Worthington Daily Globe, used with permission

While wreckages involving historic bridges through accident caused by lack of maintenance may be annoying, what drives many people to the boiling point is when accidents can happen due to a combination of ignorance, carelessness, and in many cases, downright stupidity. Many times drivers with overweight or oversized vehicles ignore the weight restrictions signs and proceed to cross the bridge haphazardly, risking the damage or destruction to the structure itself, let alone to the property of the driver himself. Sometimes excuses are brought up to justify the actions, although much of them have been questioned by local authorities, let alone the preservationists. The primary excuse used for justifying the actions of crossing the bridge is that “It has been done before.” Those who read about the collapse of the Fryer’s Ford Bridge have countered that claim saying that it was no excuse, and that “….everytime the person crossed the bridge (with too much weight) was damage inflicted on the structure, weakening it significantly.” Another excuse used in justifying the crossing was that the bridge was a shortcut and that taking a detour costs money and time. This was used with the Frenchmans Bluff Bridge in Lincoln County, Missouri in 2006, when an oversize delivery truck brought down the 1886 iron Pratt through truss  structure built by the King Bridge Company.  But not all bridge mishaps have to do with overweight vehicles. Carelessness in general, resulting from reckless driving, can also produce dire consequences, as was happened with the Blood Run Creek Bridge in Livermore in Humboldt County, Iowa in 2003, as a pick-up driver lost control and slammed into the Pratt through truss bridge, taking the 1901 structure down in the process. The bridge was one of the last built by the Marshalltown Bridge and Iron Works in Iowa.

Blood Run Bridge in Livermore. Photo taken by Jason D. Smith in 1999

So what do we do with this compound problem? This is a question which everyone is asking themselves even as this column is being read. Most of the time when mishaps involving bridges take place, those who caused the accident are usually the ones getting away with a small fine and a slap on the wrist. The sad part about this aspect is the fact that it also applies to historic bridges, like the Fryer’s Ford Bridge; especially given the fact that it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And many historic bridges destroyed by carelessness caused by lack of maintenance combined with recklessness on the part of the drivers are either eligible for listing on the National Register or are listed already. But even with the bridge near Brewster, which is not considered historically significant, one has to maintain the structures to cut costs for replacing them outright and to prolong their structural lives, while at the same time, apply strict rules to protect them from damage caused by reckless driving or even vandalism. There’s no such thing as a bridge that is built to last 100 years and needs no maintenance, as was stated by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation at one time, last year. Bridges have to be maintained for the purpose of safety, cutting costs and (in the case of historic bridges) structural integrity. State of the art technology is being introduced to determine the stability of the structure and ways to make more precise repairs to them, regardless of the bridge types (truss, arch, beam, etc.) It is more of a question of investing the time, money and effort in doing that, which is possible, even in light of the current economic crisis.

There is however the upgrading of sanctions against drivers who willingly ignore restrictions on bridges and cause accidents by crossing them intentionally. It does not necessarily have to deal with very strict guidelines like the laws in Singapore, which fine people hundreds of dollars for even spitting on the sidewalk. Nor should it be as detailed as the Flensburg Point System, where persons could receive 7 points on his driving record, be forced to take driving classes and be paid thousands of dollars in fines had such an incident occurred in Germany (please refer to the sister column’s article on the Flensburg Point System).  But it should hold drivers accountable for any damage caused to the bridge, no matter how severe nor does it matter the circumstances. They can range from the driver paying for repairs to the bridge, let alone for a new one, to having the driver’s license revoked, to even taking compulsory classes on driving safety.  This is especially important for historically significant bridges, like the Fryer’s Ford Bridge, as stricter laws will serve the purpose of providing a lesson in respecting pieces of American History which are becoming rare by the year, as well as in driving safely in areas most sensitive to traffic and the changing driving habits, which have become more erratic over the last 15 years.

While the future of the Fryer’s Ford Bridge still remains in doubt after the accident, this mishap will serve as a reminder of how precious historic bridges like these really are. The questions that all of us should ask ourselves are the following: 1. Is it worth cutting funding for improving our infrastructure or should we find other sources where cuts would be needed (like defense spending, for example), 2. Is it worth spending more money on a new bridge when we could maintain and even rehabilitate the old one to prolong its life a bit more at less cost, 3. Is it worth taking the shortcut to a bridge that is unable to carry the weight of your own vehicle just to save on gas and time, or is it worth making that extra three mile detour, and finally 4. Is it worth being ignorant or should we be aware of what we have and what we can do to better things? After all, one can make do with what little is available at his disposal without having to spend extra at the cost of others….

Fryer's Road Bridge: Future in limbo after accident. Photo taken by Bradley Widding, used with permission.

The author would like to thank Bradley Widding, Kari Lucin and Brian Korthals for the usage of the photos and the contribution to this column.


Fryer’s Road Bridge:

Frenchmans Bluff Bridge:

Blood Run Creek Bridge:

Brewster Bridge:

American Society of Civil Engineer’s Report Card for 2009:

The Flensburg Files Column on the Flensburg Point System: