A truck with a 60-foot long mechanical arm gripped a bucket-load of workers Friday and dangled them 464 feet above the Moyie River Canyon.
Riding the steel arm is the only way repair crews can reach the underside of the Moyie Bridge, Idaho’s second highest.
Two men harnessed to the bucket were fixing cracks on the 31-year-old concrete and steel structure and will spend two days suspended over the edge.
“The scary part is not so much being under the bridge it’s standing up here with the traffic,” said Butch Adams, a burly, bearded man on the bridge repair team. “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s 30 feet or 300 feet. If you fall, you’re just as dead at 30 feet as you are at 300,” he joked.
The state has only two five-man bridge repair crews to keep Idaho’s 2,500 bridges safe. The teams, based out of Boise, travel eight months out of the year and usually are only able to make the most-needed repairs.
“We are busy just hitting the hot spots. We are spread pretty thin,” said Joe Stahl, foreman of the crew fixing the Moyie Bridge.
“There is always work to do, but from what I’ve seen most of the state’s bridges are in pretty good shape. A lot better than most states.”
Bridge inspection teams prioritize their work. Sandpoint’s Long Bridge over Lake Pend Oreille recently passed a review, but crews were sent to fix problems in Dover and Naples.
Repairs on the Moyie Bridge, on U.S. Highway 2, were preventive maintenance, not for structural problems, Stahl said after a motorcycle rider passed by and asked if it was going to fall in.
Most of the time the crews are fixing potholes in bridge decks, repairing expansion joints and replacing overhead concrete braces. Logging trucks seem to have a knack for stacking loads too high and crashing into the overhead concrete beams.
The last few years, however, the state has focused more on bridge replacement than repairs. Several major bridges slated for replacement are the Coeur d’Alene River Bridge at a cost of $3.3 million and Clark Fork’s Lightning Creek Bridge estimated to cost $2.1 million.
“It’s a lot cheaper to repair and maintain them than to replace them, but some are beyond help,” Stahl said.
Work on the Moyie will cost about $3,000. Having the repair crews on the job for a day is $1,000 in wages and materials.
The crew on the Moyie Bridge also need the specialized Reach All truck. The jointed arm can lower three men at a time, reach all the way under the bridge and almost bring the crew up on the other side.
“We don’t do much of this high stuff. It adds a little extra thrill to it all,” said Stahl as the bridge and bucket truck bounced when a truck passed.
The only higher bridge in the state is Perinne Memorial Bridge across the Snake River near Twin Falls. It has a 476-foot drop.
But the view there isn’t as good as from the Moyie Bridge. Stahl’s crew can watch water cascade 212 feet down the Moyie River Canyon Dam. Niagara Falls has a drop of only 168 feet.
Stahl said his workers are used to high places. They all wear safety harnesses tied off to the bucket truck and sometimes to the bridge. But he admitted working above the Moyie River took a little getting used to.
“We walked the catwalk underneath it last night and it looked like everyone was grabbing onto the cables pretty tight,” he laughed.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: UPCOMING PROJECTS 1995 - The Coeur d’Alene River Bridge on State Highway 3. Estimated cost: $3.3 million. The Benewah Creek Bridge on State Highway 5. Estimated cost: $770,000. The Goff Bridge on U.S. Highway 95 near Riggins. No estimate. 1996 - The Kamiah Bridge on State Highway 12. Estimated cost: $4.2 million. 1997 - The Orofino Bridge on State Highway 7. Estimated cost: $3.3 million. 1998 - The Dover Bridge on U.S. 2: Estimated cost: $990,000. 1999 - The Lightning Creek Bridge on State Highway 200: Estimated cost: $2.1 million.