Concrete chunks are falling from the Monroe Street Bridge while city officials consider limiting trucks to the middle two lanes of the city’s 84-year-old landmark.
The Harvard Road Bridge in the Spokane Valley is so weakened by heavy trucks the county doesn’t let fire engines or big school buses use it.
Maintenance crews patch and glue the Post Street Bridge, hoping it survives a few more years without buckling beneath flashy new downtown trolley buses.
State bridge inspection records reveal that the health of Spokane County bridges is below state averages, with almost half of the county’s 315 bridges considered structurally inadequate or obsolete.
Many, in the twilight of their life expectancies, are overworked, straining beneath increasing loads of cars and trucks.
Most were designed for a 1950s Spokane, back when traffic rarely clogged, more goods arrived by rail and the heaviest trucks on the streets were half the size of today’s 80,000-pound rigs.
More than 80 county bridges need enough improvements to qualify for federal and state money. About 30 are in bad enough shape to be considered candidates for replacement.
While none of the bridges is likely to collapse soon, the cost of keeping them safe and open will soar. About $15 million of public money recently was spent resurfacing and replacing the Maple Street and the T.J. Meenach bridges.
But the list of worn-out bridges grows. Nobody knows how much it would cost to fix them all, and the future of the federal cash that pays for most of the repairs is uncertain as Congress cuts federal spending.
“It makes me extremely nervous,” said Bob George, a bridge engineer with the state Department of Transportation. “Throughout the state, we have so many old bridges with so many needs. The problem is going to get bigger.”
George said his worst fear is adding to his list of Washington’s bridges that have fallen down - 60 since 1934. “Somewhere down the line, we’re going to be into a crisis situation.”
Bridges working harder
Spokane bridge problems include crumbling concrete supports, exposed and rusting steel beams and structures simply considered too fragile, narrow or steep to handle the traffic.
Six rural county bridges can handle only small loads and could collapse if the wrong truck were to wander over them, according to state records.
But the biggest concern is the string of Spokane River bridges stretching from the Idaho border to the city core.
Most were built at least 40 years ago. Some get pounded by 40-ton trucks. About 1,000 trucks now enter Spokane County from Idaho every day, not including the steady stream of renegade overweight rigs that elude the state line weigh station by navigating back roads.
Neil Carroll, a Spokane county engineer, said the county’s bridges are scrutinized for hints of fatigue at least every two years.
“While they’re structurally adequate, they’re definitely working harder.”
Even the 1970s Sullivan Road Bridge is carrying far more trucks than designers had expected. Industrial park expansions brought a constant flow of tractor-trailers and cement mixers. More than one in 10 vehicles now crossing the bridge is a truck.
The Harvard Road Bridge couldn’t take the onslaught. During the summer of 1992, a driver reported a jolting ledge on the short two-lane bridge near the Interstate 90 exit to Liberty Lake.
The bridge had a broken hinge designed to let it flex with the weather. The county closed it, patched it and now plans to replace it with a four-lane $3.5 million span next year.
Meanwhile, signs warn trucks that the bridge can’t handle more than 5 tons. The Barker Road Bridge, about 1 miles down river, now shoulders the same truck traffic that damaged the Harvard Road Bridge.
The Argonne Road Bridge faces its own slow assault. The Spokane River has chewed away at its foundation. A county diver plans to pump some fill under it this summer.
Lincoln Bridge flap slows repairs
The two telephone-book-fat documents on Mark Serbousek’s desk hint at the complexity of assessing the safety and condition of a Spokane bridge.
The documents hold all the data the city bridge engineer has gathered about the Post Street Bridge, a short span above the Spokane Falls.
When Serbousek began studying it last summer, the big fear was the 78-year-old bridge couldn’t carry the new 29,000-pound trolley buses. The decorative transit vehicles are the centerpiece of a downtown redesign project on Wall Street.
Serbousek said he still needs to run his calculations through a computer, but he knows enough already to be confident.
“It’ll work for the trolley (buses),” he said. However, he said, the city may have to consider posting a sign that demands only one big truck at a time on the bridge.
Still, Serbousek doesn’t relish the fact he can’t tear down the Post Street Bridge until a planned Lincoln Street Bridge is built - likely early next century.
Until the $20 million Lincoln Bridge is standing, the city also can’t overhaul the massive Monroe Street Bridge.
When the Lincoln Bridge will be built is unclear. Federal money was put on hold after Spokane attorney Steve Eugster filed a lawsuit to try to block its construction.
Among Eugster’s complaints: The bridge crosses onto Spokane River Gorge Parklands. He argues the city should replace or fix the Post Street Bridge instead of destroying more parkland.
By stalling bridge construction, Eugster delays sorely needed bridge work, Serbousek said, adding the delays also raise construction costs.
“Eugster is costing this (Lincoln) project a couple million, I bet. It’s going to get done. It has to get done.”
Eugster said the city is to blame for any delays on work to the Post and Monroe bridges. If it wants to replace the Post Street Bridge with a new one, he said, he has no objections.
“They are prolonging the process, not I,” Eugster said, adding he believes it is “morally incorrect” to “damage” parkland for a Lincoln Street Bridge.
Serbousek said his department struggles to keep up with the work. He persuaded the City Council to double what the city spends on bridge maintenance this year.
The city recently posted a warning to truckers crossing the bridge on Sunset Boulevard over Latah Creek that they should travel only in the middle lanes.
Serbousek was concerned the bridge was handling too much truck traffic while Interstate 90 is being resurfaced.
“We didn’t want them to beat that bridge down. … Every time you turn around, there’s more costly projects coming up.”