Bridge reopening delayed

Blame the pigeons. Or the rust.

As the work to repaint the westbound Missouri River Bridge at Jefferson City continues, state Transportation officials announced Friday it will take longer to finish the project than originally predicted when it started in April.

The issue is more rust spots need to be repaired than expected, MoDOT's state bridge engineer, Dennis Heckman, told reporters at a riverside news conference.

And those rust spots have been harder to find because of the many pigeons that have decided the bridge - both above the road surface and especially underneath it - is a good place to live, have families and eliminate waste.

"When you blast the (paint and) pigeon droppings off, sometimes it's not so bad underneath, and you repaint it," Heckman said. "And sometimes you blast the pigeon droppings off - and there's no steel left."

Even regular inspections don't show that - engineers just know it happens and make an experienced-based educated guess how big the problem is before blasting is done to remove the paint and droppings.

Now is the time to make the additional repairs, he said, "while the bridge is closed to traffic (and) is nice and clean. If we didn't make these repairs now, we would be back in six months to a year, closing one lane at a time so we could make these repairs."

Heckman said the Jefferson City bridges - like most of the state's major spans that are at least 1,000 feet long - generally are inspected every two years.

Those inspections led to the planning for the bridge work now being done.

"We did expect some structural problems, and we had structural problems in the original plans for repairs," Heckman said. "What's changed is the number of them is more than we expected."

And, since the sandblasting and repair work are being done one section of the bridge at a time, there are some areas of the bridge structure that have not been subjected to the sandblasting and repair work yet - leaving the possibility more rust could be found and need to be addressed.

Patty Lemongelli, the Central District's construction and materials engineer, explained: "As we've explored and uncovered more areas, we realize that it's just more extensive repairs than what we had originally anticipated."

Closing the bridge originally was expected to last about 120 days, so it could be re-opened to traffic when school starts this fall.

MoDOT's Central District Engineer, Dave Silvester, said, "We do know that it's going to go past Labor Day and the start of school."

But it's too soon to say how much longer the work will take, he added - although mid- to late-October is one possibility.

Lemongelli said the contractor, Saffo Inc. of North Carolina, "has been doing a great job in the repairs and painting of this structure. We have the utmost confidence in them that they will continue to work diligently."

She said MoDOT officials are disappointed their mid- to end-of-August deadline is being missed.

"But we'd be even more disappointed if we didn't walk away with a good product," she said, and the delay will help provide "not only a well-painted structure but also a structurally repaired bridge that's going to last for several more years."

The additional work will add about $500,000 to the $7 million project, Lemongelli said.

Silvester added: "It's prudent for us to spend the taxpayer dollars to make sure we get this bridge to last another 20-30 years.

"To replace this bridge - just this one, not both of them - would be about a $100 million investment."

Lemongelli acknowledged the original 120-day timeline for closing then reopening the westbound bridge was an aggressive one.

Even with the delay announced Friday, the westbound bridge likely will be opened to traffic more quickly than in 1998, when the bridge painting project was coupled with a complete replacement of the deck, the driving service that's part of any bridge, and the bridge was closed for about six months, MoDOT spokeswoman Sally Oxenhandler reported.

That 1998 work cost $9.2 million.

Heckman told the News Tribune the eastbound bridge, although built to look similar to the older, westbound structure, included some engineering improvements that were not available in the early 1950s.

And, while rust is a problem on the older structure, it hasn't shown any signs of appearing on the newer one so far.

He also said the problems being found underneath the paint and pigeon droppings don't make the bridge structurally unsound.

"The types of problems we're finding are not a surprise," he said. "It's just the volume.

"None of these would have led to a collapse of the bridge."

Heckman told the News Tribune there's no need to change the inspection frequency for bridges around the state, "as a result of what we found after blasting" on the Jefferson City bridge.

Although Silvester suggested the reopening might be delayed toward late October, all three MoDOT engineers shied away from making a specific prediction.

"If things go better, maybe we'll be done sooner," Silvester said.

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