Did the Bridges of Tulare County Get an Unfair Review?

The Kings River Bridge on Avenue 416 is scheduled for a December opening. (Photo courtesy of the County of Tulare Resource Management Agency)
The Kings River Bridge on Avenue 416 is scheduled for a December opening. (Photo courtesy of the County of Tulare Resource Management Agency)

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, out of the 664 bridges in Tulare County, 55 are “structurally deficient” and 75 are “functionally obsolete.” In the aftermath of the bridge collapse on Interstate 5 north of Seattle in May, and the 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minnesota that killed 13 people, how safe are the bridges in the county?

“There is no reason to worry,” said Benjamin Ruiz Jr., Engineer VI with the Tulare County Resource Management Agency. “There’s no bridge right now that we should worry about. Some require replacement for different things, but not because they are unsafe.

“We actually have a pretty aggressive bridge program for the county,” he added. “We’re going to receive funding this year to look at all bridges and we have the expertise in house to identify if there is anything critical. The main purpose of the funding is so we can maintain preventive maintenance.”

The federal government has funds available that pay 100% of the costs to repair and replace bridges. No matching funds are required.

“As a county, we’re trying to take advantage of the federal funding for our bridges because it’s first-come first-served,” Ruiz said.

The county’s goal is to rehabilitate or replace three bridges a year, he said, “so we’re pursuing these funds aggressively.” He said that 21 bridges in Tulare County are now programmed to receive funding, making the county number one in the state in total bridges in the program. “Of course, some bridge in Los Angeles may cost more than all of ours combined,” he added.

“We take an in-depth look and prioritize bridges that we need to look at immediately,” Ruiz said, adding that there are six timber bridges in the county that the county has to inspect for termites. “Five of those we have to go back every five years and supplement the supports.

“We have four load-posted bridges that are not able to support a highway legal load (80,000 lbs.),” he added. “We’ve prioritized those. We have a bridge we will replace this fall that is both timber and load-posted.”

The fact that a bridge is rated “structurally deficient” does not mean that it is ready to collapse. It usually means that the bridge requires significant maintenance and repair to remain in service and will require eventual rehabilitation or replacement to address deficiencies. A “functionally obsolete” bridge means one that was built to codes that aren’t as demanding as those used today.
Most of the county bridges to be replaced have shortcomings other than safety issues, according to Ruiz. Some are too narrow or have no shoulders.

Ruiz doesn’t believe that earthquakes are a threat to the county’s bridges, calling this area “a low seismic region.” He also dismissed the possibility that our notorious air quality and weather could adversely impact our bridges. “Just time,” he said.

The county oversees six bridges built in the 1910s, seven from the 1920s, 36 from the 1930s, 129 from the 1940s, 84 from the 1950s, 59 from the 1960s, 20 from the 1970s, eight from the 1980s, and five built since then.

Four of those bridges are considered historical, including an arch bridge near Three Rivers. “It’s something that’s unique,” Ruiz explained, “the age and type of structure that it is.”

Historic bridges in California require additional steps before they can be replaced or significantly altered.

“If you have a historic bridge, before you go in and simply tear it up and rebuild it, it has to be evaluated for its historic significance,” said Chris Brewer, architectural historian for CalTrans. “If it’s determined that you’re going to demolish the bridge and the bridge is found to be significant, then you have to mitigate, Mitigation can be anything from building a bridge with the same character as the old one, or as simple as photographing and then demolishing it.”

The Friant-Kern Bridge, a historic bridge east of Exeter, is too narrow to accommodate the planned expressway from Lindsay to Highway 198. “If you’re going to put in four to six lanes, it’s definitely going to have to be replaced,” Brewer said. “You need to build a whole new bridge.”

This doesn’t mean that the historic bridge needs to be demolished, according to Brewer. “You simply move the road so you avoid the bridge,” he said. “The better route is to build a new bridge to the west of the old bridge and it would be on the frontage road.”

“CalTrans performs inspections on all bridges in the state every two years,” Ruiz said. “As a result of their inspection, they issue a bridge inspection report describing the condition of the bridge.”

The county has scheduled 18 bridges to be replaced, mostly due to age, according to Ruiz. One near Traver was built in 1918.

Five of bridges to be replaced are “fracture critical,” according to Ruiz. “That means if one of the connections fail, the whole bridge collapses,” he said, noting that a “military-type” bridge on 319 near Three Rivers was replaced by a bridge that opened in March. The old bridge was a load-posted bridge, meaning that vehicles above a certain weight could not use it.

“The Department of Forestry had to empty their water trucks because they couldn’t carry them full across the bridge,” Ruiz said.

The county is not responsible for bridges that are within its cities. Even so, Ruiz said he is “available to help” city engineers if needed, but so far he hasn’t heard from any cities.

“They have their own programs,” he said. “They do their own thing and make use of CalTrans funding.”

There are 17 bridges under the jurisdiction of the city of Visalia, according to Chris Young, community development director and city engineer for the city. “The overpasses on 198 and 99 are under CalTrans.” There is at least one exception to that, however.

“We’ve actually taken the lead on several widening projects, and also developed the project for the Santa Fe bridge,” Young said. “CalTrans let us take the lead. It wasn’t in CalTrans’ Capital Improvement Program, but Santa Fe is a crucial corridor for us and obviously, the bottleneck was the 198.” The city received a federal grant of more than $6 million for the project, he added.

Young gave a confident yes when asked if the bridges in Visalia were safe. He then explained his response.

“We have an agreement with CalTrans,” he said. “They have an inspection unit that comes out to conduct inspections. They look to see if a bridge is structurally sound and if it is appropriately load-rated. They look at any potential deficiencies. They look at the support structure for any cracking.”

He added that these inspections are done annually, unless a bridge gets a high enough rating and they may wait two years between inspections.

City officials have said that budget-cutting measures during the recession included delaying preventive maintenance on city structures. Young was asked if this included a cutback on bridge maintenance.

“It had some impact with cosmetic issues, such as the cracking on a deck,” he responded. “In a perfect world, you would repair that. If we identified a structural issue, that’s something we can’t defer.”

Pat Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, explained the issues that resulted in the collapse of other bridges. “The bridge in Washington state didn’t meet current standards,” he told the Voice from his Virginia office. “The lanes were too narrow and the load-carrying capability was insufficient.”

He said that the 2007 collapse of the bridge in Minnesota was the result of too much weight. “They were doing maintenance. They kept paving the bridge and had construction materials on the bridge when it collapsed.”

Natale explained why his organization is raising people’s concern about the safety of their bridges by issuing negative reviews. “I think in any area of your county or San Francisco or San Diego, I wouldn’t say your bridges are ready to collapse, but we want to make sure the public is speaking out to public officials to make sure,” he said. “The crisis we’re in now is the tough economic times we’re dealing with. The first thing that goes is that we cut back on maintenance. That’s not a good thing to do. We need to ensure proper investment in infrastructure. It’s about making sure we properly maintain structures that are going to last for a long time.

“If your roof was starting to leak, what would you do?” he continued. “If you don’t fix it, you will have additional problems. We don’t have the same attitude with infrastructure.”

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