Test of Time

Minnesota bridge collapse
leaves local commuters wary

Ohio River Bridge in Milton considered safe,
officials say, but effort continues
to fund construction of a new one

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(September 2007) – Twice a day, five days a week for 23 years, Madison, Ind., resident Duane Cieslinski has crossed the Ohio River Bridge connecting Madison to Milton, Ky. Cieslinski commutes to Carrollton, Ky., where he works as a senior engineering specialist at Dow Corning Corp.

2007 September Ind. Edition Cover

2007 September
Ind. Edition Cover

While he realizes the nearly 80-year-old bridge has some problems to deal with, he eventually became immune to the idea of the bridge collapsing.
That changed, however, when news of the horrific rush-hour collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1 spread throughout the nation. Thirteen people were killed and numerous hurt during the catastrophe.
“The Minneapolis bridge tragedy made me worry about some of the issues our bridge faces,” Cieslinski said. “It really makes you wonder how secure the integrity of the structure is.”
He is not alone in that thought. Communities across the nation are taking a serious look at their own bridges in the aftermath of the Minnesota tragedy. Media scrutiny has recently increased on the aging bridge infrastructure throughout the country.
The Ohio River Bridge was built in 1928-1929 by the J.G. White Engineering Co. of New York City at a cost of $1,365 million. It is the only bridge across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky., to the Markland Dam and Locks Bridge in Vevay, Ind. The bridge is 3,181 feet in length, with three 150-foot steel deck truss spans; one 150-foot through truss steel span; one 254-foot through truss steel span; one 727-foot through truss steel span; two 600-foot through truss steel spans and one 78-foot steel plate girder span. The piers and abutments are concrete, and the floor is concrete. The bridge has two 10-foot lanes.

Alan Webster

Photo by Konnie McCollum

"If the officials say it
is safe for trucks, then
I believe it. I’ve certainly driven across much worse."
– Allen Webster,
M&M Towing truck
driver, Madison, Ind.

The Minneapolis I-35W Bridge was built in the 1967 and was a steel deck truss bridge. In the 1990s, the federal government gave the bridge a rating of “structurally deficient,” citing significant corrosion in its bearings. There are 77,000 bridges throughout the United States with that designation, including the one in Milton.
A structurally deficient designation does not imply a bridge is in imminent danger of collapsing. It does, however, mean attention needs to be paid to problems.
Maintenance of the bridge in Milton since 1937 has been under the direction of the Kentucky Transportation Department. To determine the safety of a bridge, Kentucky Transportation officials conduct a series of inspections, including a yearly inspection, and an underwater inspection every four to five years and a fracture critical inspection every other year. Recent inspections have deemed the bridge not only structurally deficient but “functionally obsolete” as well. That simply means that a bridge does not meet current design standards for things such as the width of lanes. Anyone who has driven across the bridge can attest to the narrowness of the lanes.
Dylan Ehrnreiter, 25, lives in Milton but has driven to Madison for nine years to work. While he acknowledges he has felt the bridge shake on occasion, he doesn’t really worry too much about it falling. He does, however, have concerns about how narrow the bridge is.
“When I pull my band equipment in a trailer behind my pickup truck, I get nervous because my wheels stick out a bit. I am not used to it and the narrowness of the lanes does concern me.”
The bridge also received a sufficiency rating of 31.5 out of a possible 100 points. Before a 1997 refurbishing, the rating was 21.6.
Andrea Clifford, public information office for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Louisville, District, explained the rating is calculated by a formula based on about 20 different factors. These factors are divided into three categories: structural adequacy and safety; serviceability and functional obsolescence and essentially for public use.
The structural adequacy and safety category includes the superstructure, substructure and culverts. The serviceability category includes such factors as the number of lanes on the structure, the structure type, deck condition, underclearances and waterway adequacy. The essentially category includes the factors of average daily traffic and the detour length if the bridge were not in service.
In 1997, the bridge went through a $12 million rehabilitation project, and at that point Kentucky Transportation officials removed a 31-ton weight limit imposed on the bridge. The rehabilitation is supposed to be good until 2012, the year work on a replacement bridge is scheduled to begin.

Ohio River Bridge

Photo by Don Ward

The Ohio River Bridge connecting Milton
to Madison is nearly 80 years old
but is considered safe to unlimited
weight for traffic.

Although a $4.5 million contract has been let for environmental impact and design, work has not yet started. Madison Mayor Al Huntington believes a 2017 replacement date would be more realistic. By the time a replacement bridge is open for business, the age of the current bridge will be narrowing in on the century mark.
Huntington recently called for a ban on semi-trucks using the bridge. In a letter to Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Bill Nighbert, he stated, “In order to preclude a catastrophic bridge collapse resulting in human loss of life, and to safely extend the life of this region’s single most important transportation link, the Milton-Madison Bridge must be weight limited to include only automobiles and small trucks.”
Huntington said he is not trying to paint a gloom and doom picture; instead, he is trying to paint a bright picture for the future.
“We want to stretch the life of the bridge until the replacement one is completed,” he said. “We can’t afford to loose the bridge, and we certainly don’t want to loose people should the bridge go down.”
He said during the 1997 rehabilitation, commerce in Madison dropped sharply. “We realized at that point how vital Kentucky business is to our community. Some of that business we lost forever.”
Carla Goins, a coordinator for gifted students at Trimble County Middle School, travels to Trimble County from Madison, where she resides. Recently, a group of her students used research about the bridge they gathered for a unique competition sponsored by the U.S. Army. Her students compiled official records and research on the bridge and concluded it had some serious safety concerns and needed to be replaced. They presented their findings to officials on both sides of the river in a push to bring the issue of a replacement bridge back into the political limelight.
“I just felt sick when I heard about the Minneapolis tragedy,” said Goins. I kept thinking about the condition of our bridge and how I would react to such a thing in our community.”

Carla Goins

Carla Goins

She said there are times when she gets nervous crossing the bridge, particularly when there are heavy trucks on it. She believes a weight limit on the aging structure would be the “responsible and sensible thing to do” until the new bridge is built.
“I really don’t know why the weight limit was lifted in the first place,” she said. “We learned that the two things that bring down bridges are corrosion and weight, and we certainly have both of those issues for our bridge.”
According to Clifford, the weight limit was deemed unnecessary after the 1997 refurbishing. “If at some point officials deem a weight limit necessary, they will put limits in place.”
Many truck drivers feel the same way, including Allen Webster, a dispatcher for Madison’s M&M Towing. Webster drove semi trucks back and forth across the bridge for 26 years. Some of the semis he has driven have weighed up to 80,000 pounds, but he does not worry when he is crossing the bridge in one. “If the officials have said it is safe for trucks, then I believe it,” he said. “I’ve certainly driven across much worse.”
He acknowledges the narrow lanes and the entry ways to the bridge create problems for truck drivers, particularly the entrance to the bridge on the Indiana side. “You just have to pay close attention to what you are doing,” he said.
He questioned the recent calls for a ban on trucks on the bridge. “Why did the government spend $12 million on repairing the bridge if it didn’t work; instead, they should have put that money toward building a new one.”
Webster pointed out that if truckers were required to travel to the Markland Dam or Louisville to cross the Ohio River, consumers would end up paying for the extra costs in fuel and time.

Randy Stevens

Randy Stevens

Columbus Container trucks can be seen crossing the bridge quite frequently. Fleet Maintenance Director Richard Wallman said the weight issues don’t concern his trucks because they don’t have to scale their cargo. “We transport corrugated cardboard, so our trucks are not really that heavy.”
He said he would be somewhat concerned if his trucks carried heavier loads. “It would be something to certainly think about,” he said.
His concerns lie more with the narrowness of the lanes. His company, based in Columbus, Ind., had to purchase 96-inch wide trailers to use on the bridge and other narrow roads throughout the region. They use 102-inch wide trailers to transport elsewhere.
Although weight and width issues have been the focus of recent attention, the age of the structure concerns others. “In my experience, the life expectancy is usually 30 to 40 years in the design of things,” said Cieslinski. “The bridge has certainly surpassed that expectation.”
Goins’ students pointed out that when the bridge was built, it was designed for Ford Model A Cars, which are now considered “antiques.”
The Minneapolis bridge that collapsed was 40 years younger than the Ohio River Bridge in Milton. In fact, a bridge many consider the “sister” of the local bridge, the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, W.V., collapsed in 1967. In that tragedy, 46 people died and nine were seriously injured. The Silver Bridge and Milton’s bridge, which are often compared because they were constructed at about the same time, do not have the same design. The Silver Bridge was an eyebar suspension bridge.

Duane Cieslinski

Duane Cieslinski

Trimble County Judge-Executive Randy Stevens said he does have concerns about the aging structure but doesn’t think there is need for alarm. “Although the bridge is not designed for its current use, I hope there is no imminent danger of collapse. I can’t imagine dealing with a catastrophe like that.”
He said there is an upside to the bridge issues, including that fact that every elected official in the communities affected by the bridge are “in total agreement about the need for bridge replacement.”
He stressed how important that bridge is for the communities that depend on it. “The workers who travel the bridge, and trade and commerce on both sides need it.”
He also sees the money let for the environment and design study as encouraging, but he cautions that officials need to keep moving forward to secure the additional money for right-of-ways, land and other pre-construction issues.
“This is the No. 1 infrastructure project in our region,” he said. “If Madison and Jefferson County, Ind., and Trimble County had the means to start the replacement bridge, we would already done it.”

Back to the Milton-Madison Bridge Article Archive.



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