Troubled Waters?

Despite deficiency ratings, local officials say Central Texas bridges safe

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

Aug. 10, 2007

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Minneapolis may be more than 1,000 miles from Waco, but the effects of the Aug. 1 Mississippi River bridge collapse reach all the way to Central Texas.

Despite questions over the national state of bridges, and local concern since a hole appeared in the Interstate 35 overpass at University-Parks Drive on July 5, local authorities say Waco-area bridges are safe.

“About six or seven years ago, we were worried that the Washington Avenue bridge would flunk its inspection,” said Chris Evilia, director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally created group that coordinates transportation planning in McLennan County. “If it did, (the Texas Department of Transportation) said they’d come in overnight and barricade it so no one could cross.” Evilia added, “So if you’re not facing a concrete barricade, I’d say you’re pretty safe.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has advised all state transportation agencies to inspect steel deck truss bridges, the type of design of the Minneapolis bridge. On Wednesday, Texas Department of Transportation inspectors checked the steel trusses of the bridge on State Highway 174 near Kimball in Hill County, one of 16 such bridges in the state.

“Our inspection procedures are sound,” said Ken Roberts, TxDOT’s Waco spokesman. “Our inspectors are not suddenly going to be doing their jobs differently, because some of the most aggressive and thorough inspections happen in Texas.”

Peters cautioned all states to beware of the weight loads on bridges during repair or construction, because early signs in the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation point to gusset plates, which hold bridge trusses together, as a possible reason for the bridge’s collapse. The board suggested that the plates were not made of metal strong enough to hold the weight of traffic.

“It’s a learning process,” Roberts said. “We’ve seen no situations similar to what you’ve seen in the Minneapolis bridge. Bridges collapse for a variety of reasons, but normally it is a fire or some sort of accident. Those kinds of things you can’t prevent. There might be changes in (inspection) procedure and frequency.”

Texas has almost 50,000 bridges, each inspected every two years, said Alan Kowalik, state bridge inspection engineer.

“That means a routine inspection,” Kowalik said. “Basically our consultants go and they perform an inspection of the bridge and look at all the different elements of the bridge. It’s broken down into the deck, the superstructure (the beams), the substructure (the columns or piers), the channel. They get a rating from nine to zero.”

Bridges over water receive an underwater inspection of their piers every five years. The 27 consultants who inspect bridges for TxDOT are constantly working, Kowalik said.

“If there’s something ther that needs to be looked at closer, then it can be looked at every year,” Kowalik said. “It there’s something that we need to go back and look at more frequently then we’ll look at it more frequently.”

After the inspection, the bridge’s report is filed with the federal government and the city or county. The report includes a sufficiency rating, which is a number on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being perfect condition. Bridges with a score of 50 or below are labeled “structurally deficient.” The Minneapolis bridge had a score of 50. Almost 30 bridges in McLennan County have this rating, but County Commissioner Wendell Crunk said this is not necessarily cause for alarm.

“I think Texas has the safest bridges in the world,” Crunk said. “We immediately respond and take action.”

The number of structurally deficient bridges in Texas has been decreasing every year, according to state officials. In 2001, 70 percent of state bridges were rated as good or better, and 77 percent received that rating in 2006. TxDOT’s goal is to increase that number to 80 percent by 2011.

Out of Texas’ 49,518 bridges, 4.4 percent have a structurally deficient rating, compared to 8.7 percent of Minnesota’s 13,008 bridges that have the rating. Kowalik said the sufficiency rating takes into account factors including the ratings for each of a bridge’s elements, its age and average daily traffic.

“That thing has so many different factors into it, there’s not just one thing that makes that number go down,” Kowalik said. “If we saw something on the bridge, if there were some concrete deterioration or there was some concrete exposed, then we rate the superstructure down a certain amount.” Kowalik added, “You can’t just say because it’s a 50 then it’s in bad shape.”

If a bridge was built before requirements became more stringent, it could be labeled “Functionally obsolete.” Most older bridges have this classification. However, Roberts said, a bridge’s rating may not be the best means by which to judge its condition.

“Structurally deficient really relates more to truckloads than automobiles,” Roberts said. “Just because a bridge is labeled as structurally deficient doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. Functionally obsolete means that maybe the bridge was built in an age where the safety requirements (weren’t) what they are now, so maybe the lanes are not wide enough or the guard rails are not high enough.”

From the inspection reports, TxDOT issues a recommendation for a bridge, often calling for a replacement or repairs. A common recommendation is lowering the posted load limit, because as a bridge gets older, the amount of weight it can safely withstand decreases.

“The biggest safety issue is the load limit,” Crunk said. “If the state lowers the legal limit for the bridge, then we post that. Nothing heavier can go across that bridge. That might mean that we have to call the school district and tell them they have to find a different route for their school buses, because (they) can’t go over that bridge anymore.”

The load limit for the Washington Avenue bridge, built in 1901, was lowered after its most recent inspection.

“As long as we don’t have heavy trucks going across it, it’s pretty safe,” Evilia said.

If a bridge is beyond repair, it is recommended for the state replacement program. If Tx- DOT recommends a bridge for the program, the city or county will only fund 20 percent of the new bridge.

“They’re designed with a life span of 75 years,” Kowalik said. “There’s some that have been out there longer than that. There’s some in service that were built in the 1920s that are just stout, heavy bridges. And some don’t get a lot of traffic so they’ll last longer. For a bridge to last 50, 60, 70 years is very typical.”

While transportation authorities say not to judge a bridge by its sufficiency rating, Texas has more bridges than any other state but the fifth-lowest percentage of structurally deficient bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“For the Texas Department of Transportation and the transportation commission, bridge safety is the No. 1 priority right now,” Evilia said. “In fact, they are talking about shifting money away from new highways and into maintenance. Basically, we’ve taken the attitude that before we start building the new bridge, we should maintain what we’ve got.”

Just In The Nick of Time

Grant saves Waco family’s home

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

Aug. 9, 2007

When Tony Eggleston found out that heh ad chrono sarcoma bone cancer last July, his family knew they would face hard times ahead. Things only got worse in the winter when the family faced possible foreclosure on the Waco home where they have lived for 21⁄2 years.

“We contacted at least 30 different organizations with no results at all,” Eggleston said. “(I was) in a situation of a disease that has taken over and you can’t control that. And then not being able to get assistance, you fear losing your house and putting your family on the street.”

After weeks of calling potential sources for assistance, from Gov. Rick Perry to the American Cancer Society, the Egglestons finally heard some good news.

The family learned they were the first recipients of $3,000 from NeighborWorks Waco, a one-time emergency grant the nonprofit program gives to delinquent borrowers who face imminent foreclosure.

The program is designed to help borrowers bring their mortgages current, said Zach Carter, the HomeOwnership Center manager for NeighborWorks Waco.

The nonprofit group replaced the city of Waco as the administrators of the Foreclosure Emergency Assistance Program in February.

“They were the only ones that could help us,” said Michelle Eggleston, Tony’s wife. “We would have lost our house, no doubt. We have family that would have helped but they couldn’t help with the amount of money that we needed. Then we would have been homeless,and that would have been really bad with three children.”

Families must meet certain requirements to apply for the grant, such as living in Waco city limits, having up-to-date homeowner’s insurance and taxes and making 80 percent or less of the median income limit for Waco.

For example, the median annual income limit for a family of four in Waco is $50,400, so to be eligible for the program, a family of four would have to have an income of $40,320 or less, Carter said. To apply for the program, the Egglestons had to provide financial and medical information and met with Carter five times before their application was reviewed.

“We had to show them that I had some illness that wasn’t allowing me to work and I’m not just some bum,” Tony said.

An approval board considered the Egglestons’ application and approved it. Six weeks passed from the time the family first called NeighborWorks to when they received the check, but the application only took a week to be approved once it was submitted.

Michelle Eggleston said the hardest part was compiling tax returns, bank statements and especially medical records for the application. The program also includes one-on-one counseling and a post-purchase class.

In November, Tony Eggleston had surgery to replace tumorous bone in his right arm with a titanium bar.

“That was the largest tumor the doctor had ever seen in all his years of practice,” Tony said. “It went almost the entire length of the bone, from my shoulder almost to the elbow. We actually thought I was going to lose the arm. The doctor told me before I went into surgery that ‘you need to be prepared for when you wake up that you might not have an arm.’ ”

Tony Eggleston kept his arm, but he was unable to go back to work. His job at Oak Farms Dairy required him to lift heavy weight, and after the surgery, his arm could only lift up to 30 pounds. That’s when the Egglestons started searching for help.

“There needs to be some more programs for people who do get sick and still try to provide forvtheir family,” Tony said. “You hear about the homeless, but there isn’t anything to help people in a situation that they can’t control. Of course, NeighborWorks was a Band-Aid on the situation.”

Carter said that there were 62 foreclosures last month in McLennan County, which usually has 50 to 70 a month. NeighborWorks, Habitat for Humanity and the Waco Community Development Corporation provide foreclosure prevention services such as budget counseling, lender mediation, refinance counseling and recommendations for social services.

Since January, NeighborWorks has assisted 20 families facing foreclosures.

“Several of these have had successful outcomes, meaning the owner was able to keep the home,” Carter said. “The organization is able to help these families who don’t qualify for the grant in other ways through mediation with the lender, and the grant money is only one tool in the arsenal to fight foreclosure. We must always look for other ways that we can help to reach a workable solution and help the homeowner keep the home.”

Funding for the program comes through the city of Waco as a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. NeighborWorks plans to help 10 more families before the year is over and will seek additional funding for next year.

“There’s no shame in asking for help because if people don’t know that you need it, they can’t help you,” Michelle Eggleston said. “It may seem harder to have to go to someone and say I can’t pay my bills, but there are resources out there to help you to do that.”

The Bridges of Denton County

By Pamela Bond

Denton Record-Chronicle

June 1, 2006

In the 1920s, Moleana Mason Carson crossed the Old Alton Bridge everyday on her walk to school. Hickory Creek gurgled and bubbled along below her and the oak trees on either side of the creek bank glowed a lush green in the spring and fall, and their bare branches waved in the wind in the winter.

The old iron bridge has seen many seasons pass. It is now ridden with tire tracks instead of footprints, and it has been weathered with time. So has Carson, now 80. But the view from the Old Alton is ever the same.

Walking across the Old Alton is like taking a step back in time. The bridge, built in 1884, is located in a park on what used to be Old Alton Road, now Copper Canyon Road at Hickory Creek.

While the names may have changed, the bridge itself has not. The Alton is the oldest out of the 17 historic bridges in Denton County and is one of the only ones that has not been relocated.

In the 1880s, Denton County hired the King Bridge Company and the George E. King Company to build a total of 26 bridges, mostly iron, according to Allan Sloan King of the King Bridge Co.

At the time, Denton had a major population increase, with the opening of the Texas Normal College in 1891 (now NT), public schools, the first bank and others.

The iron bridges were considered “symbol of modernity, a badge of stature for the community and its growing economy and culture,” according to the Texas State Historical Commission.

The county appropriated $125,000 to their construction, which was completed in 1910, according the Denton County Historical Commission. Elections were held throughout the 1880s and 1890s to decide on expenditures for the bridges. Eventually, $10,000 was borrowed from the permanent school fund to afford the structures.

Today, three of Denton’s 17 historic bridges – the Alton, the Gregory Bridge, and the Rector Road Bridge – are listed in the National Park’s National Register of Historic Places. There are 10 other historic listings in Denton: the Courthouse, the square historical district, the Continental State Bank, 2 farms and 5 pottery kiln sites.

Established in 1966, the register is meant to “honor a historic place by recognizing its importance to its community,” according to the National Park Service.

A few years ago, the county started to replace the old iron bridges with new ones. Only five remain in their original locations.

To preserve the bridges, the county’s engineering department, a division of public works, established an “Adopt-a-Bridge” program. While the program has existed for many years, it only became active recently, when the county started to replace the bridges.

Guyer High School, on South Teasley Lane, was the first to adopt a bridge a year and a half ago. The Rector Road Bridge now “spans an environmentally sensitive area,” according to the Denton County Historical Commission.

But not all the historic bridges share its fate.

“When a bridge is going to be replaced, it is slated and moved into storage for a year,” Robin Davis, of the county engineering department, said. “If it is not adopted, then it is scrapped for metal.”

For Carson, the bridge is more than a historic landmark or a structure of iron. For her, it is a part of her past, a tangible memory.

“My brothers would go up the creek to a spot where they’d jump in the water and float back downstream,” Carson said. “Then, as the water started getting fast, they’d catch the iron bridge in order to climb out. I never was that brave. Of course, Mother and Daddy didn’t know anything about it. If they had, they would have been scared to death.”