March 23, 2011 Edition

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Black River Bridge Meeting

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

The only good news at Thursday night's public meeting at the Lawrence County Courthouse in Walnut Ridge concerning the Black River Bridge at Black Rock is that the bridge is safe for motorists to travel across, according to the Arkansas State Highway Department. The bad news is that five-axle trucks carrying more than 66,000 pounds cannot cross the bridge or they will be fined. The weight limit is causing serious problems for area businesses and citizens.

State Rep. James Ratliff of Imboden and Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman scheduled the meeting after the AHTD lowered the weight limit on the bridge from the standard 40 tons to 33 tons on Feb. 14. Notices of the impending drop in weight limit were released earlier.

Representatives from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department and the U.S. Department of Transportation attended to inform citizens why the bridge was posted and what plans they are looking at for the future. They also asked for suggestions from those affected by the posting, ideas they could take back to Little Rock for further study to help alleviate the weight limit's impact on businesses and jobs in this area.

According to the AHTD, the bridge was built in 1949 and has exceeded its lifespan. It is the only one of its kind in Lawrence County and one of seven steel deck truss bridges left in Arkansas. The 2,600-foot-long bridge has issues within its steel trusses. On a scale of one to 100, with 100 being the best condition, the Black River Bridge is ranked at 24.

Bridges are inspected every two years, but the bridge was inspected after 12 months, following a consultant analysis recommending the posting last year. The highway department is currently patching the bridge deck and will make repairs underneath when the deck is completed.

A consultant will re-evaluate the bridge in more detail in the next few weeks, and his structure analysis will be available in two to three months. The bridge will remain posted until then. Depending on those results, the highway department might be able to increase the limit or may have to lower it more, officials said.

Funding for a new bridge is already in the current funding cycle, and is on the fast track. Work on permits and survey design have begun and construction will begin in 2013.

"It will take two years to build the bridge," said Rep. Ratliff. "If the new bridge is not built beside the old one, it will take two years to build a road to access it."

Businesses in Black Rock as well as many others in this area are feeling the financial impact from the lower weight limit. Gravel businesses located near Black Rock now have to route their trucks through Imboden to Pocahontas to get to Walnut Ridge. With fuel prices increasing and the extra time it will take to make deliveries, the cost to transport gravel and other goods will be greatly increased.

Butch Chase of Vulcan Materials said the restrictions could cost up to 100 jobs in the area, and many businesses might not survive until a new bridge is built.

"Our costs went up 25 percent because of this posting," he said. "It will cost us in excess of $3 million per year. This has increased commerce for every county from Mississippi County to Springdale, and put us at a disadvantage."

Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House said the situation is also bad for tourism in the area.

"If people think the bridge is unsafe, they are not going to want to cross it," he said, despite the highway department's assurance that it is safe.

Some of the options suggested by local citizens were making the bridge a one-lane until a new bridge can be built, lowering the speed limit to 10 to 15 miles per hour which would allow the heavier loads to cross the bridge without damaging it, placing detour signs for trucks that are over 66,000 pounds and moving the construction of the new bridge to the top of the list for highway projects in Arkansas.

Surveys are ongoing for the new bridge to begin construction in 2013, but the type and location of the future bridge will be discussed at a later meeting.

Highway department representatives will take the suggestions they received to Little Rock to see if any of them are feasible. Until they come up with an option or the latest inspection proves favorable for heavy loads, the weight limit will remain in place.

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