Lack of use takes a toll on South Lawrence Trafficway bridge

This photo, taken Sunday, shows a view that looks east across the bridge with a car, below, heading north on Iowa Street. The supports holding the bridge up are rated in good condition by state inspectors. A bridge less than a mile to the west — one that actually carries trafficway traffic — has supports rated in very

Turns out a road not traveled still yields to Mother Nature and Father Time.

A highway bridge that crosses Iowa Street, at the eastern edge of the South Lawrence Trafficway, is showing minor signs of wear despite never carrying any traffic during its entire life.

No tractor-trailers, pickup trucks, SUVs, school buses, sports cars, bicycles or anything else with wheels have traveled across the 174.5-foot-long bridge for the past 15 years, while the remainder of the nearly 9-mile-long trafficway accommodates anywhere from 5,000 to more than 10,000 vehicles per day.

“It’s the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ right now,” said Earl Bosak, area engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation. “Anything that man builds deteriorates, especially if you don’t use it — I don’t care if it’s a house or a bridge or a car or anything. If you just leave it sit, it will deteriorate faster than if you use it.”

The bridge is far from dilapidated, according to the department’s most recent bridge inspection. On a scale of 1 to 10, with a 10 indicating pristine conditions, both the bridge’s deck and superstructure rate an 8, or “very good.”

An inspection in May 2010 indicated that the bridge’s substructure, or vertical support systems, rated a 7, or “good.” While that remains far from any level of concern — “That bridge’ll be there probably 60 years,” Bosak said — the rating is one notch below the “very good” assigned to another bridge that had been built at the same time less than a mile to the west.

That trafficway bridge nearby, over Yankee Take Creek, carries 5,820 vehicles per day.

“If it just sits there, nature will take its course faster than if you use it,” said Bosak, who is responsible for more than 600 miles of state highways in Douglas, Osage, Lyon and half of Wabaunsee counties. “You’re maintaining it if you use it. But if you don’t use it, you don’t maintain it. … Sweeping the deck and those kinds of things? We don’t do that because there’s no traffic.”

There’s no traffic on the bridge over Iowa Street because the trafficway is incomplete. Original plans called for running the highway through the Baker Wetlands to a connection with the existing Kansas Highway 10 at the southeastern edge of Lawrence, near Noria Road.

That portion of the project ran into opposition from people who objected to the trafficway for environmental, cultural, historical and financial reasons, and the Sierra Club and other groups went to court to stop it. In the 15 years since the western portion of the trafficway opened, the so-called “eastern leg” of the project went through a redesign that calls for expanding the wetlands, opening a wetlands education center and relocating the southern extensions of Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue to reduce automotive impacts on people, plants and animals in and around the wetlands.

The new version — which still would connect to the bridge over Iowa Street, which is U.S. Highway 59 — now is slated for construction. The first bids on the $192 million project are expected to be considered in September 2013.

If the trafficway were completed, the inactive bridge finally would find itself rumbling with the activity its concrete deck, steel girders, concrete abutments and elastomeric bearings were designed to handle.

Only under the weight of thousands of vehicles a day will the bridge yield its true condition, Bosak said.

“After we put traffic on it, that first year, that first inspection will tell us a lot,” said Bosak, whose department now inspects bridges on the trafficway and elsewhere twice a year. “I suspect we’ll inspect it at six months, and then a year after we open it. Things we can’t see now would probably show up.”

At least once a week, Bosak’s crews run diagnostics by driving every mile of every road and bridge under their jurisdiction.

And for at least a few more years, the trips will continue to exclude a single stretch that runs for 174.5 feet over Iowa Street — a bridge that remains sealed off from traffic by eight metal traffic signs, getting older and facing the elements.

SLT paving ahead

Before construction begins on extending the South Lawrence Trafficway, the highway’s existing portion will get a fresh coast of asphalt.

The project is slated for next summer, running from Kansas Highway 10’s connection with the Kansas Turnpike at the northwestern edge of Lawrence to the existing bridge that crosses U.S. Highway 59 at the southern tip of town.

Expect the work to last anywhere from 30 to 35 days and involve stopping traffic temporarily for sections at a time. It’s a two-lane highway so there’s no room for maintaining two-way traffic while a stretch of a lane is being worked on.

“It’ll be a pilot car situation,” said Earl Bosak, area engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation, which is making plans for the work. “It’ll be a mess for a little bit.”

The project calls for applying a thin layer of pavement — likely one inch thick — atop the existing road surface, Bosak said.

The trafficway’s bridges will not get new surfaces, but the concrete “approach slabs” leading up to each one will be replaced, Bosak said.