Dover Bridge hangs by steel thread

Mayor: ‘I just hope it holds up’

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DOVER — The Dover Bridge is falling down and, according to the man who blew the whistle to get it replaced, drivers can be excused for holding their breath, crossing their fingers and saying a quick prayer as they ease across the 73-year old steel-truss structure.

That’s because Randy Curless, Dover’s mayor, has watched the old bridge slowly fall apart since he first moved to town more than 45 years ago.

“They started talking about replacing that bridge in the 1950s and it was a good 50 years before they did anything about it,” said Curless.

On one hand, the mayor of this small town just west of Sandpoint is happy with the Idaho Transportation Department’s decision to invest almost $22 million in the replacement structure currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2011. On the other, he has serious misgivings about continuing to send vehicles across a steel bridge that has been battered by oversize loads and stressed — literally to the breaking point — by increasingly heavier semi-truck loads over time.

“You just watch sometime when two semis meet each other coming up to that bridge,” the mayor said. “They know the bridge and they know how much it moves with weight on it, so they stop and pass over it one at a time.”

Past its Prime

The Dover mayor’s assessment of the bridge is more than rhetoric. He bases his opinion on personal experience. When a log truck exceeded the height limit or a chunk of the bridge decking gave way, it was often Curless who was first on the scene.

“On numerous occasions, I went up there with a tractor and moved logs off the bridge,” he said. “And I’ve gone up and flagged when there were holes in the deck until the ITD could get a flagger there.”

And it was Curless who traveled to Boise to make his point with the ITD, ultimately embarrassing them at a public meeting by displaying pieces of the Dover Bridge he brought along for show and tell — pieces he had picked up after they crumbled off and fell to the ground.

Last year, Failure Magazine featured the Dover Bridge in its Failure Analysis column, noting that the “crossing is so poor that its listing in the National Bridge Inventory database highlights the fact that it ‘does not meet currently acceptable standards’ and that the situation is ‘basically intolerable.’”

It was that same national database listing that resulted in earlier — and much more prominent — national coverage about the sad state of the bridge.

Negative Press

In May 2008, Popular Mechanics called out several pieces of infrastructure that needed immediate attention in an article titled, “The 10 Pieces of U.S. Infrastructure We Must Fix Now.”  Among them were the Brooklyn Bridge, the industrial canal lock in New Orleans, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport — and the Dover Bridge.

The only reason this otherwise insignificant crossing made it into such heady company was what the magazine called its “outrageously low” sufficiency rating. A score of 100 from the National Bridge Inventory signifies a perfect structure, suitable for the amount and type of traffic it serves. At the time of the Popular Mechanics feature, the Dover Bridge had just received a rating of 2, later upgraded to 3 after a nearly three-foot-square chunk of the deck found dangling from its rebar was repaired.

Electronic media followed the print coverage when The History Channel sent a film crew to Dover the following January to interview Curless and show footage of the aging structure. Once again, the headline was how one of North Idaho’s busiest little bridges was hanging on by a steel thread, operating with height, width, weight and speed limit restrictions.

“The media coverage was a tremendous item and it didn’t start until those first stories came out in the Daily Bee,” said Curless, adding that he believes the subsequent national attention moved the Dover Bridge project off the shelf and into construction. “The magazine and TV coverage — that and the federal stimulus money — is the only reason this new bridge is happening now.”

Finding the Funds

Barbara Babic, ITD’s Region 1 spokesperson, acknowledges that the glare of the media spotlight might have played a tiny part in prompting the state to move forward with the bridge project, but said what had been holding things back was a lack of money for an expensive project. At one time, estimates ran as high as $40 million to reroute the bridge, though the eventual low bid from Sletten Construction Company came in at $21.6 million.

“By the time The History Channel and Popular Mechanics stories came out, that project had been on our radar — designed and sitting on a shelf — for some time,” Babic said. “We just simply didn’t have the money to pay for it until the stimulus funds became available.”

The construction work in Dover represents the only bridge project funded under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in Idaho. Although it is the fourth-largest of all proposed state projects fueled by stimulus dollars, the Dover Bridge has been the largest to be awarded funding and moved into the construction phase at this point.

Cost of Waiting

At first glance, one could argue that Sletten Construction’s low bid saved Idaho more than $15 million off the $36.8 million originally allocated under the AARA for construction.

According to Dover’s mayor, the bridge could have ended up costing even more if the proposed timeline had been adhered to.

“I know it was designed and sitting there, but at that point in time, they were still talking about putting a lot of these projects off, including the Dover Bridge,” Curless said, adding that some estimates had pushed construction out as far as the 2015-2020 timeframe.

Had the ITD been able to fund the project when it was approved in 1992, it would have cost approximately $4 million, according to department records. If it had been tackled when the concept of replacing the Dover Bridge was first investigated in 1979, the cost would have been $1.6 million.

Even then — more than 30 years ago — Curless said the bridge was showing the signs of overuse and age.

“In the 1970s, a semi going over would cause a noticeable flex in the bridge — you could feel it move,” the mayor pointed out. “Today, all it takes is a pickup going across it and you get more flexion than you did in the ‘70s.”

How it Was

The Dover Bridge project ranks high among Idaho’s highway expenditures, but not because of the actual crossing, according to the ITD’s Babic.

“People say, ‘It’s not even that big for a bridge — why does it cost so much?’” she said. “The bridge is just the icing. It’s the ‘cake’ underneath that takes the most work.”

Citing what she called the “geological challenges” of the new route for the bridge, the spokesperson added that transportation officials don’t consider the project to be large-scale from a financial perspective.

“Moneywise, no,” Babic said. “As far as construction and building challenges, yes.”

Babic also provided some insight into what the political and social environment was like when the original Dover Bridge was built in 1937.

“That would have been a state project back then, using federal funds,” she explained. “There was no public involvement and no environmental work back then. There were no hoops to jump through in 1937. You just said, ‘This is where the bridge is going’ and then you built it.”

Which explains why the July 3, 1937 edition of The Daily Bulletin announced that the Dover Bridge work had been completed two weeks earlier, at what then seemed like a very expensive total of $92,000. That figure might have included some unexpected costs or overruns, as ITD records show the original bid from A.B. Carscallen came in at $51,231.20.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, with cars and trucks still crossing the steel-truss span over a now-defunct stretch of railroad right-of-way, Bonner County Historical Society Museum Director Ann Ferguson read from the 1937 newspaper clipping and remarked: “I guess you could say it has paid for itself.”

Matt Farrar, the ITD’s bridge specialist in Boise, also gave passing marks to a failing crossing, if only for its long history of service.

“Engineering design methods and specifications and construction techniques have been improved vastly since before World War II and it is fascinating to look at how things were done at that time without sophisticated design software and modern construction equipment,” Farrar wrote in an e-mail response to questions about the bridge. “The Dover Bridge is about 73 years old. In general, bridges have a design life of about 50 years — so you could say that the original workmanship was pretty good.”

Don’t expect to see the classic steel arch after the new bridge opens next year, though. Unlike its counterpart near Westmond, which was left standing when a new span was built, the steel trusses that the FDR Administration helped fund and that the Obama Administration will replace, are destined to disappear.

“It has been hit so many times and redone so many times that it has lost any historical integrity,” Babic said. “The Dover Bridge is so deteriorated that it’s going to have to be torn down.”

Dover’s mayor, meanwhile, keeps a close eye on the old bridge and almost wills it to hang in there for one more year.

“I just hope it holds up until we can get traffic across the new bridge,” Curless said.

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