In Oklahoma, state highway bridges a river and time
WAURIKA — The State Highway 79 bridge in Jefferson County crosses the Red River.
But this camelback pony truss, 2,255 feet in length, also spans 75 years.
The structure is now one of nine bridges available for adoption as part of the state Transportation Department’s Cultural Resources Program.
Since roughly 1993, nine bridges have been claimed. Four of these were taken by private individuals, four were local municipalities, including the Doby Springs Golf Course near Buffalo and Rogers Point Park in Catoosa. The state Transportation Department was the recipient of one historic bridge, which currently sits in front of the Division 8 Headquarters in Tulsa.
Bob Rose, a state Transportation Department Division 7 engineer based in Duncan, recently drove down to the SH 79 bridge at the Red River crossing.
There, Rose talked about why this structure with 21 spans is being offered for adoption and why someone might want portions of the bridge.
As Rose stood off to the side of the highway, a flatbed pickup toting a spiked round bale of hay traveled from the Oklahoma side of the bridge southward. A few minutes later, a northbound truck crossed from Texas into Oklahoma.
Rose said the primary reason the bridge is being replaced is that it is structurally deficient. While that doesn’t mean it is unusable like the Purcell-Lexington bridge, it “cannot support the design traffic loads anymore,” he said.
“We need to replace it so that regular traffic that is good for commerce for Oklahoma and Texas can cross the Red River at this location,” Rose said. “It’s a stunningly picturesque structure, but steel deteriorates with weather and with salt that has been placed on the deck for icy conditions. That leads to problems. This bridge is about 75 years old and that’s a good life for a bridge like this.
“There are also issues with the stream erosion that make it desirable to replace. The location here in the Red River is one that has been problematic through the years from the standpoint of stream erosion. The soil is real sandy in the Red River and the river progresses to move downstream in a serpentine fashion, just the way a snake crawls on the ground. It erodes in the curves and deposits sand after the water makes the turn.”
It’s just a continual movement of the stream channel. That’s part of why Rose said it’s important to remove the old bridge instead of leaving it next to its replacement.
“One day there will likely be a time when the structure is weakened enough and the forces of nature are strong enough that it is going to tear it down,” Rose said. “And if it tore it down when the water was at flood stage it very likely could sweep the remnants of the old bridge into the new one and damage or knock out the new bridge.”
The 1980s were “very problematic from the standpoint of stream erosion and the bridge being at-risk.”
There was a flood on May 15, 1980, that caused damage and another on June 1 that year. In the case of the latter, Oklahoma’s state Transportation Department along with the Texas Department of Transportation hauled in fill-material to abate erosion of the approach embankment on the Texas end of the bridge. There was a flood in October 1983 and another in 1985. Work was done in between and after those floods.
There are plans to begin building the new bridge, that is actually a little longer, in 2018. The estimated cost is $12.7 million.
Although the process sometimes can be moved up, this bridge involves two states, Rose said.
“This one is in that same status,” he said. “The difference between this one and the others is that Texas is paying 50 percent of the cost of it. So we would have to be assured that Texas is able to come up with the money at the same time if we were to advance it.”
Why do this?
The main reason the Transportation Department markets bridges is because the Federal Highway Administration's Historic Bridge Program encourages the retention, rehabilitation, reuse and preservation of bridges significant in American history, architecture, engineering and culture, said Scott Sundermeyer, the Transportation Department’s Cultural Resources Program director.
“Adaptive reuse of a bridge also meets many other regulations regarding the preservation of historic properties,” Sundermeyer said. “The intent is to preserve structures that have been determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places by making them available for reuse.”
Bridges are products of their time and are often unable to handle the traffic counts, speeds or loads of today’s vehicles, Sundermeyer said. A historic bridge would be offered for adoption when it no longer meets traffic needs and is scheduled for replacement. In order for a historic bridge to be replaced, the Transportation Department must complete a thorough engineering analysis of the structure to make sure that it cannot be rehabilitated to meet the traffic needs, or that it cannot be left in place to function as a pedestrian or bicycle facility. In addition, the analysis looks to determine whether the bridge can be left in place as a nonfunctional monument.
“The safety, engineering and operational concerns of all of these alternatives are weighed, as well as any environmental impacts that a selection of one of these alternatives might introduce,” Sundermeyer said.
“If ODOT and FHWA determine that the most prudent alternative is to remove the structure, then that is what is done. If the bridge must be removed, then ODOT and FHWA are left with a final preservation measure — preserving the structure in a new location, and a marketing effort is initiated.”
Truss bridges, such as the one on SH 79 at the Red River, are the most likely candidate for adoptions, as the individual spans are designed to be portable, he said.
The SH 79 bridge at the Red River in Jefferson County, according to the most recent statistics issued in 2011, has an annual average daily traffic count of 1,100 vehicles.
“Some individuals just need to cross to the other side of the river for their daily activities,” Rose said, adding that people may live on one side and work on the other.
Rose also said Transportation Department officials hope here might be individuals who will want to preserve portions of this bridge.
Sundermeyer echoed that when speaking of the overall program.
“The goals of ODOT and many state DOTs to provide a safe and effective transportation network to the public, can sometimes conflict with preservation,” Sundermeyer said. “We hope to ensure the preservation of these unique pieces of history and valuable examples of industry and engineering of the past.”
Information about Oklahoma’s adopt-a-bridge program
Q: How does someone adopt a bridge?
A: With our new process of sending out press releases, one need only look in their local newspaper or keep their eyes on other local media. In addition, we place current information about all our bridges that are available for adoption on our website at www.odotculturalresources.info/adopt-a-bridge.html.
Currently, we have nine bridges available. These bridge projects are in various stages of development. As such, some are available sooner than others. For those who are interested, we ask that a short proposal be prepared outlining the intended use of the bridge and the location where it will be moved. We want to ensure that the spirit of the program, that the structure is preserved, is met.
Q: What are the specifics with this program: Responsibilities financially and otherwise of the recipient(s)? What are the responsibilities of ODOT in this program? Who moves it? When is it available to move, when a new bridge is completed, before completion or at another stage in the process?
A: The most important goal of the program is to make historic bridges available to people who are going to value and appreciate their historic significance — in other words, ‘preserve’ the bridge.
Preservation is a responsibility of the recipient. In order to ensure that we are providing a good home to the historic bridge, we ask that the interested recipient prepare a short proposal, which should outline the method proposed to move the bridge, the intended use for the bridge, and where the structure is to be moved.
We ideally want the bridge to retain its function as a structure that spans a body of water, whether that be a stream, creek, pond, etc. At this time, ODOT does not offer financial assistance in the transport of the bridge.
The recipient is generally responsible for the move and is encouraged to work with ODOT and the contractor in the details of the move. In general, the recipient cannot take over the historic bridge until the new bridge is constructed and open, but there is flexibility after this point. For instance, the historic bridge can be removed and set aside for the recipient to pick up at a later, more convenient date.