Jeff Jackson, director of Responsible Urban Development for Houston, thinks that something apocalyptic could happen to the Yale Street Bridge, especially when construction of the controversial new Heights-area Walmart is completed.
In November, the Texas Department of Transportation performed a study of the circa 1931 bridge, which crosses over White Oak Bayou. (According to the City of Houston's Public Works and Engineering Department, area bridges are inspected biannually via the TxDOT Bridge Inventory, Inspection and Appraisal Program.)
Says Jackson, "When they did the analysis of the bridge -- this time with the plans knowing exactly how it was built -- it went from a 56 sufficiency rating all the way down to a seven."
On November 23, TxDOT drastically dropped the maximum weight load of the City of Houston-controlled structure from 40,000 pounds and 21,000 pounds for tandem axle vehicles to 8,000 pounds per single axle and 10,000 per tandem axle. In response, the City of Houston banned all commercial trucks and installed signage prohibiting construction travel across the low-rated bridge.
Jackson and members of his group say that more needs to be done.
"One of our big arguments is that it's not enough to put up the signage," says Jackson. "The City has admitted that they don't have the resources to enforce it." Once the feeder roads to the new Walmart are opened, Jackson says that the Depression-era bridge will experience a "double whammy."
"Bottom line is that there are only ten other open permanent bridges in Texas with a sufficiency rating of seven or less. There's no other bridge in Texas with lower sufficiency and inventory ratings and higher average daily traffic than this bridge," says Jackson. "Our group has essentially come to the conclusion that the bridge is one of the worst if not the worst in Texas. It needs to be rehabilitated or completely replaced."
Kenneth Ozuna, district bridge engineer of TxDOT Houston, tells Hair Balls that "the drop in the load rating is why the overall score dropped...but the condition of the bridge did not drop."
As far as plans for a rehabilitation or replacement initiative, Ozuna says nothing is planned "but momentum seems to be building" on a project that, if realized, would be funded through a federal highway bill.
Worried citizen Colton Candler remains skeptical about the safety of the bridge, even after engaging Ozuna in an e-mail exchange. On January 23, Ozuna told Candler that "there are many non-state owned bridges with load ratings below H15" and that the bridge is in "excellent condition for its age."
Says Candler, "There isn't another bridge in Texas that has these low of ratings. Mathematically, it's so close to being shut down that the dead weight of paint or lights -- which would be used to beautify the Walmart-area development -- would put enough negative impact on the bridge."
Candler and Jackson aren't the only ones demanding that the City of Houston and the TxDOT step up their game.
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District 148 state representative Jessica Farrar fears a doomsday scenario in a letter written to Daniel Kreuger, director of Houston's Public Works and Engineering Department. (As of the time this post was published, Kruger hadn't responded to our interview request.)
"If trucks are not allowed on this route, the issue becomes one of enforcement -- specifically, whether or not any and all offenders will be caught," writes Farrar. "It will only take one fateful trip over the bridge to create catastrophe."