Essex: 'We inspect every single bridge every single year'

Aaron Krause • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:50 PM

Some years ago, a New London school district bus driver was crossing a Fayette Road bridge when she noticed it felt different. She notified the district's transportation head who, in turn, called the county engineer's office.

Officials determined the bridge needed to be replaced, and was within 10 months, said Carl Essex, assistant to the county engineer.

The anecdote illustrates area residents' willingness to report such problems, and the commitment Huron County officials have to bridge and road safety, Essex said.

"Had she not called, who knows what would have happened," he added.

Local residents should not worry about a bridge collapsing in Huron County, as it did in the Twin Cities on Wednesday, Essex said. Essex added that's not only because of the Huron County Highway Department's vigilance, but state law: While federal requirements stipulate workers inspect bridges once every two years, in Ohio annual inspections are required. And in Huron County, officials look at some bridges every month, depending on how close they are to being replaced, Essex said.

"Obviously the bridge (in the Twin Cities) needed attention," he said.

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the middle of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour Wednesday. Dozens of cars fell more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some landing on top one of another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.

The bridge was crowded with traffic, and a train had been passing beneath the roadway at the time it fell. Officials confirmed the official death toll at five, but Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said more bodies were in the water. Hospitals officials said 79 others were injured. Police estimate that 20 to 30 people were unaccounted for, though Dolan stressed that it was just an estimate.

"They'll crawl over that bridge with a microscope to find out what went wrong," Essex said.

He said the Interstate 35W bridge is about 60 years old. Back when it was built, the bridge's traffic capacity was probably half of what it is today.

Essex couldn't recall a similar incident happening in Huron County. However, he said the Silver Bridge collapse on the Ohio River in 1967 served as a major wake-up call.

The bridge, connecting West Virginia and Ohio, gave way during rush hour and sunk into the Ohio River, killing 46 people. Safety officials eventually determined corrosion as the cause. Steel corrosion on bridges is still a major concern. Infrastructure experts worry that thousands of American bridges are dangerously outdated and overburdened.

Locally, Essex said bridge construction has been a priority for decades. Huron County has 411 bridges, some a century old, Essex said.

"We inspect every single bridge every single year," he said. He added there are about two dozen bridges that officials keep an eye on much more frequently because it is almost time to replace them. This year's inspection is turning up numerous bridges which will need accelerated attention as a result of last summer's flooding, Essex said.

He commended local residents for their patience while bridges are inspected or replaced.

"We're so fortunate in Huron County," Essex said. "We rarely get complaints about bridges being closed because they know it is a temporary inconvenience but a permanent improvement."

Editor's Note: The Associated Press and cbsnews.com contributed to this article

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