The Ben Williamson Bridge, closed Thursday morning because of a damaged I-beam, probably will remain closed at least through the Memorial Day holiday, and transportation officials don’t yet know how soon they will be able to reopen it.
The Kentucky Department of Transportation is looking for ways to either open the bridge to light traffic or route two-way traffic across the neighboring Simeon Willis Bridge, which carries vehicles from Kentucky to Ohio.
Engineers crunched numbers late into the night Wednesday before recommending closure, said Kentucky Department of Highways spokesman Allen Blair.
An initial 10-ton weight restriction proved unfeasible because large trucks continued to use the bridge, Blair said.
A three-hour traffic count Wednesday afternoon revealed 24 apparently overweight trucks crossing the bridge, highway department engineer Jason Dean said.
The final decision to close the bridge was based on safety, Blair said.
The transportation department is exploring safe options for keeping traffic flowing, Blair said.
“Our priority is how to open it the fastest to the most traffic,” he said.
Reopening it to light traffic would work if officials could ensure no overweight vehicles would try to cross, but that would require constant monitoring and a means to determine which vehicles would be turned away.
Putting two-way traffic on the other span has been done before, notably during a repainting several years ago, but that was a long-term, pre-planned project, Blair said. Making the change would require some complex shifting of traffic patterns on streets where the bridge empties into Ashland.
The diagonal I-beam in question is twisted from impact with an unknown object, and the gusset plates that affix it to adjacent beams are cracked and partially separated.
The twist eliminates the beam’s strength, according to Dean. “A beam hit and twisted is just about as inefficient as anything,” he said.
A single 10-ton load could cross safely, but the danger comes with multiple loads, he said. If two or more large trucks crossed at the same time, the stress could be dangerous.
Repairing the bridge will require replacement of the beam and a second beam that was hit but not bent as severely, and the gusset plates. The transportation department will attempt to fast-track the project but will still have to perform more studies, draw up plans and solicit bids. Repairs could continue into the summer months, Blair said.
The transportation department also will have to consult with the Norfolk Southern Railroad, whose tracks run almost immediately under the damaged portion of the bridge.
Current recommended detour routes are to the bridges in West Huntington and at the Greenup Locks and Dam.
The transportation department is not recommending use of the Ironton-Russell Bridge because it already has size restrictions. Motorists in Ironton reported traffic being severely backed up at that bridge Thursday.
Ironton and Russell have made adjustments to their traffic signals to try and keep traffic flowing, Blair said.
Built in 1931, the bridge carries 20,000 vehicles every day, about 12 percent of them trucks, Blair said.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.