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IDOT report: Most Wilmette bridges holding up

Friday, November 13, 2009
Pioneer Press
by Kimberly Fornek

A report on Illinois bridges, recently made available to the public, shows that most bridges in the Wilmette area are in satisfactory to good condition.

One exception, however, is the bridge on Happ Road over the Skokie River, just south of New Trier High School's Northfield Campus.

An October 2008 inspection of the Happ Road bridge determined it was in poor condition, with "advanced deterioration," according to a report posted online by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The Cook County Highway Department is responsible for the bridge, which was last reconstructed in 1972.

The report rates the driving surface, or deck, of the bridge; the superstructure, or main load-bearing beams, made of concrete and/or steel; and the substructure, the vertical piers and footings. The Happ Road bridge was marked "structurally deficient," with all three sections of the bridge rated poor. There are two levels below poor, namely "serious" and "critical," before temporary supports would be installed if the bridge was considered to be at risk of "imminent failure."

"The Cook County Highway Department has increased its inspection frequency of the bridge from the federally mandated ... interval of 24 months to a full inspection every six months," Highway Department Superintendent Rupert Graham Jr., stated in a memo.

"While we agree that the bridge is a prime candidate for replacement, we do not believe it to be unsafe or unable to carry legal truckloads at this time."

That project has not been scheduled, Graham stated. However, the county highway department and IDOT determined, based on the load ratings performed by a licensed structural engineer, that the bridge is safe to carry legal loads. A sign warns the bridge's maximum weight limit is 37 tons.

On average, 3,650 vehicles a day drive over the Happ bridge.

In comparison, 28,200 vehicles cross over the North Branch of the Chicago River on Lake Avenue. The deck and superstructure of that bridge, which is about a quarter-mile east of Wagner Road, were found to be in "very good condition," and the substructure was rated "good." Still, the bridge was marked "functionally obsolete."

The term does not reflect the safety of the structure, said Todd Ahrens, an IDOT bridge planning engineer. The bridge, or a road, may be "functionally obsolete" because design standards have changed since it was built. For example, the standard width of the shoulders on a bridge or road is wider than it was decades ago.

The traffic flow over a bridge also may have increased enough to classify the bridge as "functionally obsolete."

"We don't have enough money to go fixing every structure that is functionally obsolete," Ahrens said.

Concerns about the condition of Illinois' bridges were raised after the 2007 collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13. Following that tragedy, IDOT stepped up bridge inspections and conducted more thorough examinations of 37 bridges that were deteriorated to the point that weight restrictions had been imposed.

Recently the IDOT Web site began to post specific information about all Illinois bridges.

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