Bridge Replacement Funding
The Mentone Bridge stood for seventy-five years on Lookout Mountain, as solid as the rock upon which it was built and without any disturbing signs of wear or age. ALDOT performed its routine biennial inspection at the end of 2002 and announced that the bridge's substructure was in satisfactory condition. The bridge might not have been quite wide enough for today's preferences, but it was certainly structurally sound.
The momentum to replace the Mentone Bridge began during the summer of 2004 after an off-duty law-enforcement officer was injured on June 3rd. The officer rounded the blind curve southeast of the bridge at 35-45 MPH as a truck with a wide load of dangerous farm machinery was slowly exiting the bridge. There was not enough room between the edge of the 13-foot-wide load and the guard rail for the officer's pickup truck. Even if the width of the bridge had met current standards, the accident would probably still have occurred. The cause of the accident was the blind curve, not the bridge.
Mayor Linda Brown and the Mentone Town Council sent a request for help to ALDOT on June 23rd. Their letter stated that: "The line of sight coming from the east is very limited, thus causing traffic to enter the bridge without being able to see a truck on the bridge." Here is Mayor Brown's letter.
Upon receiving Mayor Brown's letter, Johnny Harris, ALDOT Division Engineer, ignored the problem of the blind curve. Instead, on June 30th, he asked D. W. Vaughn, ALDOT Deputy Director of Operations, to initiate preliminary engineering on replacement of the Mentone Bridge. Mr. Vaughn, however, responded on July 13th that inspection reports on the Mentone Bridge indicated that it didn't need replacing. Here is Mr. Vaughn's letter.
Shortly after Mr. Harris was told that the bridge didn't need to be replaced, on August 4th, Jimmy McCrory of ALDOT filed a time-sheet for one hour of work and a Bridge Inspection Condition Report in which two critical ratings for the bridge were downgraded. First, the "concrete" grade of the "stringers, girders, beams and deck slabs" was downgraded from "6" to "5", resulting in a downgrading of the "overall rating" for the "59-superstructure" categorization from "6" to "5". Second, the "overall rating" for the "60-substructure" categorization was downgraded from "6" to "5", even though none of the criteria on which this overall rating was based were changed. The report was signed by Jimmy McCrory, C.E., on August 4th. Twelve days later, Mr. McCrory's report was endorsed by William Sean Butler, P.E., on August 16th. Here are these documents.
Because the extraordinary Mentone Bridge Inspection Condition Report of August 4, 2004, raised serious questions about funding qualifications under Federal Highway Administration programs, a written request was submitted to Mr. Jim Ippolito, ALDOT Chief Counsel, on September 15, 2005, for additional information regarding the inspection. A year later, on September 28, 2006, ALDOT responded as follows:
With his newfound justification for replacing the Mentone Bridge, Johnny Harris, ALDOT Division Engineer, then responded to Mayor Brown on August 20th that replacement of the bridge had been a high priority for several years and that preliminary engineering work on its replacement had recently been authorized. Here is Mr. Harris' letter.
Finally, Senator Lowell Barron added his endorsement to Mr. Harris' efforts to replace the Mentone Bridge on September 27th. Here is Senator Barron's letter.
When ALDOT performed its next routine biennial inspection of the Mentone Bridge at the end of 2004, the new, lowered ratings were accepted as the status quo. Here is the entire ALDOT Inspection File for the Mentone Bridge (BIN-543) beginning with the inspection performed on December 16, 2002.
The lowering of the grade ALDOT assigned to the Mentone Bridge (BIN-543) in the extraordinary inspection of August 4th, 2004, made replacement of the bridge eligible for funding under the Federal Highway Administration's Bridge Replacement Program. The bridge was already eligible for improvement funding; with the grading change it became eligible also for replacement funding.
What changes in the bridge justified ALDOT's sudden downgrading of its sufficiency rating? None were documented. Why wasn't the blind curve simply fixed? This could have been accomplished in a few weeks for a small fraction of the cost of replacing the bridge. If this had been done, the serious accidents which have occurred since then could probably have been avoided.
The Federal Highway Administration's Recording and Coding Guide for the Structure Inventory and Appraisal of the Nation's Bridges says that minor spalling is a justification for the assignment of a "fair condition" grade to the substructure of a bridge. Is evidence of spalling the basis for ALDOT's lower ratings in its current Bridge Information Reports?
Has the substructure of the Mentone Bridge suddenly begun to fail, after seventy-five years of no problems? What objective criteria did ALDOT use in making its sudden downgrade in its assessment of the bridge substructure from satisfactory condition to fair condition?
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