Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: An Interview with Patrick Sparks

Photo taken in August 2010

This is it. Today is the Presidential Elections and it is the time where we finally decide for ourselves who to vote for. The next president will have a lot on his plate as he has many issues to deal with, among them preservation of historic bridges and improving the infrastructure.  The last segment of the series on the US Presidential Elections deals with an interview with Patrick Sparks, who is engineer at KT Engineering Consultants, based in Texas. The company specializes in the restoration of historic buildings and bridges. Mr. Sparks has been active on the historic bridge scene for many years, which includes being member of the advisory board at Historic Bridge Foundation in Austin, Texas. The state has had a great track record regarding historic bridge preservation, which can be seen with the recent restoration of the Piano Bridge in Fayette County.  I had an opportunity to ask him a few questions about this topic, in hopes that he can shed some light from a civil engineer’s point of view. Here are his thoughts:

How would you rate the state of the infrastructure in the last four years in your homestate, in your opinion? (General as well as with regards to bridges and historic bridges)

The infrastructure here is generally good, but it is easy to see that we are not keeping up with bridge rehabilitation. Of course, the state DOT stopped most funding a few years ago, due both to the end of the highway bill cycle and also due to some mismanagement.

How has the I-35W Bridge disaster in Minneapolis influenced the way bridges are designed and maintained?

I’m not clear about the affect of I-35 bridge. It happened at a time when funding was dropping off nationally.

And with regards to historic bridge preservation?

Bridge preservation continues to be a difficult thing. Rehab vs replace… replace is still usually chosen even when the costs are substantially higher. We still see the same obstacles. However, withe AASHTO focus now on general bridge preservation, there may be a shift in perspective.

How do you think the US is handling the policies involving infrastructure and historic bridges?

Clearly there is not enough infrastructure funding, and almost no funding for structural maintenance of bridges. And the decision of rehab vs replace is always biased in favor of replace. These are policy issues.

Only 6% of the Stimulus Bill was for infrastructure, so I have to give the current administration the Congress at the time low marks. Given the massive amounts of spending for non-infrastructure things, we will have to see what happens. Since the Democrats had full control of Congress, and did not pass an infrastructure bill, I’m not sure they would pass one now, unless they lose the Presidency and have to rebuild their credibility. In short, they missed the opportunity.

In your opinion, which of the two candidates (Romney or Obama) is better fit to handle the problems mentioned above? Why?

In summary, my hope is that Romney would do a better job with infrastructure, as I think he sees it as a true investment.

Thank you for your time and help.


Three Bridges Gone, Two collapsed, One dead

Fort Keogh Bridge in Montana, now demolished. Photo courtesy of HABS-HAER

There is a proverb that was passed down to the author by a friend of mine from Minnesota during a bridgehunting tour a couple years ago: Taking care of a valuable thing in life can prolong its life.  Sadly, as far as bridges are concerned, this proverb cannot be taken lightly as neglect and carelessness can destroy a structure with one swift drop into the ravine. In some cases, lives are sacrificed and the value of the structure is lost forever.

Three historic bridge tragedies have come to light in the last month clearly shows the neglect people have taken to maintain or in cases of damage caused by natural disasters, fix the structure to use again. The mentality seems to be that a bridge is to be crossed and if it means exceeding the weight limit. If a bridge is unable to hold traffic, it goes but without considering alternative crossings as a way of saving money and leaving the structure alone for lighter vehicles to cross.  The trouble with these three bridges is that there was little to no media coverage, thus allowing grassroots writers and even bridge websites like this one to fill in the vacuum. Part of that has to do with the Presidential Elections in the USA, which many people are looking forward to it being over with after today. But the other part has to do with the fact that various mediums have focused on issues that are of marginal importance and not on those that matter the most. In the case of one of the bridges that collapsed, one person died of his injuries the next day.  It is hoped that after the Elections are finished, that society and the media can focus on the real issues that matter the most. In this case, ways to preserve and maintain historic bridges for people to use in the future, while at the same time, make them safe for crossing- or if it is not safe, provide alternatives so that drivers can cross to get from point A to point B.

Here are the obituaries of the three bridges:

Fort Keogh Bridge near Miles City, Montana:

Built in 1902 by the Hewett Bridge Company, this two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge was perhaps the most ornamental of the bridges along the Yellowstone River, which flows into the Missouri River. Sadly though, flooding in 2011 sealed the bridge’s fate as one of the approach spans collapsed and one of the main spans leaned over. Despite pleas from the pontists and preservationists to salvage the bridge for reuse, plans went ahead to demolish the bridge in its entirety. While it was planned in the fall of 2012, it took place with next to no notice this past spring. The bad news was given to the author this past weekend by the state historical society. This tragedy will definitely end up on one pontist’s Wall of Shame because of its discreteness of the whole process, combined with lack of information and will to at least communicate regarding alternatives to demolition. It is questioned whether this act violated the preservation laws (especially Section 106), but no word on that aspect has been given.

Side view of the collapsed structure. Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal

Old KY Hwy. 1657 Bridge near Falmouth, Kentucky:

Located over the South Branch of Grassy Creek, this bridge is typical of the standardized riveted Pratt through truss bridges that were built in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It was bypassed by a new bridge over a decade ago and became private property. Sadly, the bridge collapsed on 28 October in the evening when Craig Ruber, who owned a landscape store and was part of the Grant County Farm Board, tried crossing the bridge while hauling hay. The weight was too much for the bridge and the truss structure dropped into the river. He died of injuries sustained in the 20-foot fall. Sherman Cahal, who runs a blog bearing the name Bridges and Tunnels, visited the bridge before and after the collapse and provided some details of the structure, which you can click on here.

CGW Bridge and its collapsed span. Photo courtesy of Andy Winegar
The bridge taken at the same site last summer. Courtesy of the author.

Chicago and Great Western Railroad Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa:

The City of Des Moines has a wide array of unique bridges, both in modern terms as well as in historical terms. The CGW Bridge, built between 1893 and 1901 over the Des Moines River, is one of those structures. The bridge features four Pratt through truss spans built on a skew of approximately 20°. When it was abandoned and later bought by the city in 2002, it was hoped that the bridge would become a valued asset for the bike trail network serving the city of 230,000 inhabitants. After the collapse of one of the main spans a week ago, the future of the bridge is anything but certain. While fire caused by arson last year may have contributed to the weakening of the bridge, the main culprit was a crumbling pier supporting the third and fourth spans (going east to west). While it did not receive much attention by the media, this mishap is not unfamiliar, for another Des Moines River Crossing, the Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County, suffered a similar fate 20 years ago. It is unclear what will happen to the CGW Bridge except the options are on the table: replacement span through a girder type structure, conversion into a pier like it happened at Horn’s Ferry, or complete demolition and removal. Given the work being done at the site, it appears that the third option may be exercised. But we will not know until we have clearer details by the city and the contractors involved.

Close-up of the cracked piers. Photo courtesy of John Marvig
Work being done at the bridge site. Photo courtesy of Andy Winegar