8 Investigates: Northeast Arkansas bridges

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The average bridge in northeast Arkansas is nearly 40 years old, according to statistics collected from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Region 8 News analyzed the statistics, and of the 3,457 Arkansas bridges in Region 8, 7% are rated "structurally deficient".

According to Randy Ort, Public Information Officer with the AHTD, bridges that are structurally deficient are safe for travel, but they are required to be inspected more often. By definition, bridges are structurally deficient when they have problems with the deck, superstructure or substructure and require more frequent inspection. Nearly 400 bridges are "functionally obsolete", which are bridges that do not meet the current design standards of today's traffic patterns.

Ort told Region 8 News Arkansas has doubled the number of trained eyes on bridges since the 2007 collapse of the Minneapolis Bridge, which killed 13 people. He said the state planned to hire more inspectors before the collapse.

Region 8 News toured a bridge over Highway 412 between Paragould and the Missouri state line to get a firsthand look at the inspection process. Randy Clark, who has been inspecting bridges since 2002, discovered a minor issue during the visit.

"What you have there is a sprawled are in a concrete casement in a steel shell piling, and that would be a minor repair," said Clark. "On a new structure, you normally would not see something like that."

Clark said mud may have been encased in the cement when it was poured, and high water may have washed out the mud. He said the repair would be minor.

Clark said he inspects 700 state bridges every two years, but he's responsible for the routine inspection of more than one thousand bridges in northeast Arkansas.

"Normally when we get in the office in the morning, we will plan out which bridges that we want to go look at, and depending on what county we'll work in. we'll work a county at a time," said Clark. "Sometimes you think you're not going to get done on time, but so far we've been able to keep up pretty much, and it is really a revolving door. By the time you get through with all of the bridges, you're back looking at them again."

Clark said once he's done with the initial inspection, his report is sent to Little Rock, where engineers will analyze ratings, age and the severity of problems found. Those results will then be used to determine a plan of action. By law, a bridge is to be inspected every two years, but they may be inspected more often if defects are uncovered.

Even "structurally deficient" bridges are considered safe, as long as they're used properly. Ort said the bridges can become unsafe if drivers don't obey posted weight limits.

Overall, Arkansas bridges are rated better than bridges in other states. According to Transportation for America, Arkansas is ranked 11thsafest in the number of "structurally deficient" bridges, while Missouri is ranked 10th worst. Northeast Arkansas, according to our analysis, rates right along with state statistics.

Interestingly, the oldest bridge in Region 8 is in Independence County. In 1909, a small bridge was constructed at Padgett Island at Big Bottom Slough. Independence County Judge Robert Griffin said the bridge is not used any longer, after a cut through was built several years ago.

Region 8 News analyzed bridges in the 20 counties included in the Arkansas viewing area. In the interest of time, we were unable to collect bridge rating data for Ripley, Dunklin, New Madrid, Howell, Oregon and Pemiscot Counties.

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