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Are our bridges safe?
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Last Wednesday's tragic news of a major bridge collapsing in Minneapolis has caused public officials across the nation to sit up and take stock of the bridges in their own jurisdictions.

Newton County Engineer Kevin Walter said the news of the sudden and unexpected collapse of a large span of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge, which resulted in the deaths of at least five people, was very disconcerting to him.

"How that can happen without some indication, I'm sure it will be talked about for some years," Walter said.

A whole-scale bridge collapse such as the one in Minneapolis is highly unlikely to occur in Newton County though said Walter.

"One good thing is we don't have any long-span bridges. They are fairly small bridges," Walter said. "This was a huge bridge and an enormous failure. I think we're safe in the county, and I think we have a pro-active program of repairing bridges and we don't expect any bridge failures."

Soon after the Mississippi River Bridge collapse The Atlanta Journal-Constitution came out with a report of their own that listed 18 bridges in Metro Atlanta which were rated below a 10 on a 100 point scale by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Fortunately for drivers in Newton County none of the bridges listed in the AJC's report are located in the county.

According to Carrie Hamblin, media spokeswoman for the GDOT, there are 96 bridges in the county, both on-system bridges which the state oversees and off-system bridges which the county oversees.

At least once every two years state inspectors visit the county to examine its bridges. The inspectors examine the entire structures of the bridge said Hamblin, checking for corrosion, scouring and weathering and testing to determine what kinds of load the bridge can handle.

"We also take into account traffic counts as well as the type of traffic," Hamblin said.

 While state inspectors examined Newton County's bridges over the January-February period, a report of their findings has yet to be released.

"We do rely heavily on the state expert inspectors," Walter said. "That report every two years is very important to us."

Emergency repairs were completed this past spring to the Edwards Road Bridge which crosses Gum Creek. According to Walter, state inspectors informed the county in January that they had serious concerns about the safety of the bridge due to the erosion by sand and water of the pylons supporting the bridge.

"I don't think the bridge was in imminent danger of failure," Walter said. "But they don't take any risks in the state and we didn't want to take any chances either so we closed it and fixed it immediately."

Quick action was taken by the county to close the bridge said Walter while repairs to cross-brace the pylons, weld all cracks and encase the pylons in concrete to protect them from high water took place. The bridge has since been re-opened.

"As far as we know there are no other bridges in the county aside from that one bridge that were in need of emergency repairs," Walter said. "That's not to say that we don't have some variety of bridges, some with repairs that are necessary."

The county also took the step of closing the 70-year-old High Tower Trail Bridge last fall until such time as the bridge can be replaced. The single-lane timber deck bridge was rated to handle only three tons, roughly the weight of a single car Walter said.

For a bridge to be able to hold a school bus and rated for all traffic it must be able to carry 20 tons, or 40,000 pounds said Walter.

Walter said the county is currently in the process of purchasing right-of-way and expects construction on the new bridge to begin late this year or early next year.

Two additional bridge repair projects were expected to go before the Board of Commissioners for approval Tuesday night. One project would re-surface the deck of the Alcovy Road Bridge, which crosses Cornish Creek. According to Walter the deck's concrete top has become cracked, allowing rainwater to seep inside the bridge and over time to corrode the bridge's supports. Resurfacing the bridge now will extend the life of the bridge. The project is expected to cost about $500,000.

The second bridge project would consist of minor repairs to the underside of Dial Mill Road Bridge, which crosses Gum Creek said Walter.

While the average lifespan of a bridge is between 30 to 75 years, many of the county's bridges are already between 30 and 50 years old Walter said.

"We worry constantly about replacing bridges in the future and coming up with money for that," Walter said. "It's a big expense and it's certainly a big concern."