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At first glance, the short bridge on Winthrop Drive looks fine: just a few feet of concrete and pavement to cross a shallow, unnamed creek that cuts through the quiet residential neighborhood.
But a quick peek underneath the Northwest Raleigh bridge reveals why it has been barricaded since August 2011 – and why it’s a textbook example of the city’s aging infrastructure. Several pieces of rebar that reinforce the concrete are dangling precariously into the water.
“We believed the bridge was in danger of collapse,” said Scott Bryant, an engineer with the city’s public works department. Bryant said city inspectors made the decision to close Winthrop Drive the same morning they discovered the bridge’s condition.
For the past year and a half, city engineers have been drawing up plans to replace the 1960s-era bridge while residents grow accustomed to the detour. Bryant expects construction to start next month on the $196,000 project. He hopes to reopen the road by the end of May.
While residents might wonder why they’ve yet to see any work, the 18 months of planning is typical for an emergency bridge replacement, Bryant said.
“I would say this is a fairly fast-track project,” he said, adding that the planning requires a detailed analysis, real-estate acquisition and utility relocations. “These things can take any number of years. ... We were very fortunate here.”
Winthrop Drive isn’t the only Raleigh street that has closed abruptly because of safety concerns. At least two other neighborhood roads remain barricaded, and the city has a long list of bridges with designations such as “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient.”
A national problem
The problem isn’t limited to Raleigh. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech last week called for a “Fix-It First” program to address pressing infrastructure needs such as roads.
“Aging infrastructure is a national issue,” Bryant said. “The type of bridge (on Winthrop Drive) has around a 50-year service life. There are others like that around the city and the nation – thankfully most of them are not with rebar dangling down below.”
Other emergency repairs have proved more complicated than the Winthrop Drive bridge. A few blocks off Six Forks Road, West Drewry Lane was suddenly shut down in September when city crews discovered that a sewer line under the street was in danger of breaking, with a potential to leak 4 to 6 million gallons of sewage into Crabtree Creek. An adjacent stormwater culvert was also crumbling. The city initially hoped to reopen the road by January, but the fix proved more complex.
Crews have had to make major adjustments to the stormwater system to address Crabtree Creek’s well-known tendency to flood. Otherwise, the sewer line could face more problems.
The work is heavily dependent on the weather, and the road may stay closed into March. “Every time it rains, we lose everywhere from three to five days,” said Eileen Navarrete, a city engineer.
‘Driving in circles’
The delays are increasingly frustrating to residents forced to detour. “Surely average rainfall should be factored into completion days on projects,” said Nancy Margolis, who lives in the neighborhood. “Everyone’s driving around in circles trying to figure out the detour.”
Teen drivers in the neighborhood have taken to the city’s SeeClickFix website to voice their safety concerns. Several said they’re forced to make a dicey left turn onto Six Forks Road heading to North Hills, sometimes narrowly avoiding a wreck. They’ve asked the city to speed up the project.
Drewry Lane will still get a quicker fix than some city projects. In East Raleigh, a section of Albemarle Avenue that traverses the Longview Lake dam has been blocked off since 2009. Engineers decided that repairs would have to wait until after a $2 million rebuild of the entire dam and spillway.
That project was originally scheduled for 2010; it’s now set for completion in 2014. Changes in design prompted the delay, engineer Chris Stanley said, and the work will require draining the lake. “We’re still in the design phase with an engineering consultant,” he said.
More fixes needed
More street closures are likely in the years to come throughout the city. Last year’s bridge inspection report shows that of 48 bridges maintained by the city, 10 are classified as “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” That means they don’t meet modern standards, but they’re still safe as long as drivers heed weight restrictions. A 1966 bridge on Lake Dam Road in Southwest Raleigh scored lowest, with 35 out of 100 points in the inspection.
Chris McGee, a public works engineer, said he’s working on a program to prioritize bridge repair and replacement projects.
“There’s not enough money to do everything that has to be done to every bridge,” he said. “It’s how do we make the best use of those dollars.”