Keep it out of reach

June 6, 2017

Materials should not be stored out in the open

What would copper tubing be doing under a bridge?

The answer is quite simple: It would not be under there in the first place. The price of copper these days continues to bring out the thief in some people. This is the reason why the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) would have never stored the enticing material under the I-85 bridge, which lost a section due to a fire back in late March. What was there, sitting in a lot, was spools and spools of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) tubing, a less expensive product that can be thrown under a bridge, cheaply fenced in and richly forgotten about.

So when a vandal lit a chair on fire and left it for dead under the I-85 bridge, a worst-case scenario came to life. The flames wiggled around the loose chain-linked fence and began feeding on the HDPE. In terms of magnitude, the fire could not reach a higher level. The smoke was thick and black, which creates a flag that is waving and red for firefighters. None of them look forward to battling this type of villain.

The tubes were supposed to be used for a smart highway project, but the contractor defaulted in 2008, and when GDOT lined up a different contractor alternative materials were chosen. With the HDPE already paid for, GDOT decided to save instead of waste, and in 2011 the tubes were moved to the lot under I-85.

HDPE is not highly flammable. I don’t think it is even mildly flammable, but as the I-85 incident proved, the material can be prone to the intense heat. Should we give GDOT a pass here? I think the agency should take on full responsibility for what happened. Material of any kind should not be stored out in the open, where it could be vandalized, stolen or where it could become a second-hand victim to another type of crime. Was the question asked at GDOT if the HDPE was a hazard? Possibly. None of us were included in the conversation. However, if there was even the slightest of slightest chance that something could happen to the HDPE I would have hoped somebody at the agency would have had the gumption to stand up and force action. If it was not done at that moment in 2008 when the material became free of commitment, the question should have been asked over and over again: Where can we move the tubes to a more secure place? The large spools under the I-85 bridge also looked like they were under the care of a misguided teenager who just decided to shove them in a corner hoping the mess would take on function. The look alone made GDOT look bad.

One positive has come out of all of this. The incident has forced departments of transportation to check what they have sitting under their bridges. According to a CNN survey, more than two-thirds said the Atlanta I-85 bridge collapse charged them to reinspect their bridges or reconsider changes in storage policies. The Maryland Transportation Authority wasted no time. It is now against the rules to store HDPE on state-owned space under bridges.

The FHWA also does not want states to put anything under spans, but nothing really is in writing. This is now an opportunity for the federal transportation arm to offer stern guidance, and I believe it will eventually. The future prevention here is worth its price in gold.

About The Author: Wilson is editorial director of Roads & Bridges.

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