This bridge is tipsy

April 1, 2019

Illinois DOT refuses to make quick repairs on I-80 bridge

The Cellar did not even look like it was open for business. Still, many people in my position might have  tested the door.

I am not a drinker. Never have been, never will be ... not even after a potentially terrifying situation. In early February I found myself underneath the I-80 bridge in Joliet, Ill., just a couple hundred yards away from The Cellar, a small tavern showing its age. A media storm has been over this bridge after it was discovered that Illinois DOT crews noted certain sections of the westbound structure were “structurally intolerable,” were in “critical condition” and “may require closure.” I live about 65 miles from Joliet, so I had to see the corrosive outbreak for myself. I have been around hundreds of bridges in my 20-year career at Roads & Bridges, so I would like to say I have a trained ear around spans of all ages and in all conditions. Standing below the underbelly of the I-80 bridge, traffic whizzing above sounded more like fireworks going off in the distance. That is not what I am used to hearing. A stiff drink afterwards was tempting, but not necessary.

IDOT has been facing an angry mob the last few weeks, most demanding the I-80 bridge be fixed immediately. A local union is even paying for space on a digital billboard that warns motorists of upcoming doom. It screams BRIDGE AHEAD IN CRITICAL CONDITION. That’s one of two messages. IDOT’s image is being pelted, but the agency still believes the bridge, which carries a combined 84,000 vehicles a day and is the main carrier through the third-largest city in Illinois, is safe to remain operational. Their expertise is all the validation that is needed.

I’m not here to debate IDOT’s engineering superpowers, but even Captain Marvel herself can’t predict when bad luck is going to team up with tragedy.

The I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis permanently spans the back of my mind, and the similarities with the I-80 bridge will frighten you. The I-80 bridge is a steel truss bridge that was built in 1965. Work on the I-35W steel truss arch bridge began in 1964 and was completed in 1967. The I-80 span is non-redundant, as was the I-35W. The average score on the last inspection of the I-35W bridge was 4. Overall, the I-80 bridge was rated at a 4 when it was last inspected in April 2018. The I-35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 7, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145.

You could throw every gadget and trained eye on a bridge along with a team that has thousands of hours of field inspection under their hard hats, and critical elements could still be missed. They were missed on the I-35W bridge.

The traffic volume and the fact it is a major freight route makes the I-80 bridge almost impossible to close, but IDOT should have made the necessary repairs as soon as humanly possible. Instead, everything has been put off until May. Lack of funds is just a reckless excuse. The mere mention that a bridge could collapse from a trusted source like a DOT should move state legislators to reach their long arms and pull from other resources.

The I-35W bridge collapse killed 13 people; were those people on the minds of IDOT officials? I certainly hope the I-80 bridge is still standing while you are reading this column. A collapse would serve as another tragic example, and would have many at IDOT drowning their sorrows.

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

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