Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 26, 2013

Issue is safety

Cabinet wisely errs on side of caution in closing bridge

The Independent

ASHLAND — Don’t complain too loudly if you have to drive a few more miles and it takes a little more time to cross the Ohio River from Ohio into Kentucky because of the temporary closing of the Ben Williamson Bridge in downtown Ashland. Kentucky Department of Transportation officials decided to close the bridge to all traffic Thursday after placing a 10-ton weight limit on the 82-year-old span proved impossible to enforce without 24-hour patrols.

As this is written, officials have no way of knowing just how long the bridge will be closed, but if the closing proves to be lengthy, this community has years of experience in having just one downtown bridge. It’s inconvenient but certainly doable.

Before the Simeon Willis Bridge was built during the administration of Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. in the early 1980s, the Ben Williamson Bridge was the only Ohio River bridge in Ashland. Long traffic days in crossing the bridge during the early morning and late afternoon rush hours were common, and the need for another bridge was recognized by everyone on both sides of the Ohio River.

After the opening of the Simeon Willis Bridge, the Ben Williamson Bridge was closed for more than three years for a major overhaul that no doubt extended the life of the bridge. While we found it frustrating and puzzling that it took longer to refurbish the Ben Williamson Bridge than it took to build the Simeon Willis Bridge from scratch, when the restored bridge finally was reopened, it was well worth the wait.

During the work on the Williamson bridge, traffic on the Willis bridge was two way, and the greatest challenge to that was rerouting traffic from Ohio one block to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (a.k.a. 12th Street) and preventing south-bound bridge traffic from going straight onto one-lane 13th Street.

If necessary, that same traffic pattern can be restored with a minimum disruption. For now, traffic from Ohio is being rerouted onto the bridges at the Greenup Dam and in West Huntington. Traffic is not being rerouted across the Ironton-Russell bridge because there already is a weight limit on that bridge. It would have been much easier to deal with the closing of the Williamson bridge if the new bridge being built connecting U.S. 23 with downtown Ironton were open, but the damage to the Ben Williamson Bridge was deemed so extensive that repairs could not wait until the new bridge was open. While traffic is restricted on the Ironton-Russell bridge, it is a safe alternative for passenger cars and pickups crossing the Ohio River — just not large trucks.

The final decision to close the Ben Williamson bridge was based on safety, said Kentucky Department of Highways spokesman Allen Blair. That also should be the only reason for reopening it. A diagonal I-beam on the bridge is twisted from impact with an unknown object and the gusset plates that affix it to adjacent beams are cracked and partially separated.

Engineers say a beam hit and twisted is nearly useless. A single 10-ton load could cross safely, but the danger comes with multiple loads. If two or more large trucks crossed at the same time, the stress could be dangerous.

One only has to remember the sudden collapse of the Silver Bridge linking Gallipolis, Ohio, and Point Pleasant, W.Va., in the late 1960s and the much more recent collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis to realize the importance of bridge safety. Those two incidents alone are more than enough reason for engineers to err on the side of caution when it comes to closing a bridge, just as Indiana did two years ago in closing the Interstate 64 bridge across the Ohio River in Louisville.

If repairs to the Ben Williamson Bridge require that it will be closed for an extended period of time, then state and local transportation officials should temporarily restore two-way traffic on the Simeon Willis Bridge. But if the repairs can be done quickly, then the current rerouting plan is inconvenient but workable.