North Mississippi bridge problems cited; excessive loads one problem

Published 10:38 pm Saturday, August 11, 2007

Northeast Mississippi’s three worst bridges have weight restrictions to prevent collapse, but at least one trucker says those limits are routinely ignored.

Signs posted at the bridges, all within one mile of each other on Mississippi Highway 178 west of Tremont in Itawamba County, warn drivers not to exceed 20,000 pounds per tandem axle. Engineers set the limits after deeming the spans deficient.

A tandem axle is a pair of two or more axles located next to each other, a common configuration in large trucks.

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All three bridges scored 17’s out of 100 possible points on a sufficiency scale. One hundred is the best score, and anything 50 or less is considered deficient.

These are the lowest ranked bridges in the region. They cross Gum Creek, Cypress Creek and Bull Mountain Creek.

On Tuesday, one trucker said he surpassed the weight limits, and another apparently just eked by. The first, a driver for a company in Amory, said he had more than 80,000 pounds; the second, Robert Wright with Darrell Harp Enterprises in Red Bay, Ala., said he had 45,000.

The Amory driver said he’s not alone in surpassing the bridge limits: “There is an impressive amount of weight going over this bridge,” he said, adding that many truckers haul excessive amounts.

A spokeswoman for his company said Wednesday she doubted that the truck weighed that much but couldn’t find anyone to confirm her view.

The revelation comes one week after Minneapolis’ I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi River and sparked intense scrutiny of bridge safety nationwide. That bridge had ranked 50 on the same type of scale.

The Amory driver said he had a permit for the heavy load, but officials from the Mississippi Department of Transportation called the claim unlikely.

Permits to exceed weight restrictions on bridges are rare and granted only to drivers with no other access in or out of a particular area, said Tommy Thames, director of MDOT’s permits division. If the drivers are ignoring the weight limits, Thames said, then they’re doing it illegally.

“In all actuality, it’s a problem with any state that has restricted bridges,” he said, “because there is virtually no way that we can get out and monitor or routinely … watch these routes to make sure that we can check every vehicle that runs over every bridge or every vehicle that runs down a road in Mississippi.”

The problem is serious but probably not all that widespread, said Willie Huff, director of MDOT’s enforcement division.

Of the roughly 6 million trucks the state weighs annually, less than 1 percent are cited for exceeding weight limits set on both roads and bridges. However, that rate sharply rises to 30 percent when looking only at trucks weighed with portable scales. Portable scales typically weigh only intrastate, short-haul trucks traveling on state roads.

Huff also said trucks can weigh up to 52,000 pounds and still cross the three Northeast Mississippi bridges in question if they have at least five axles. That’s because the weight restriction applies to each dual axle.

So, a dual-axle truck can weigh up to 20,000 and still cross the bridge; or a truck with two dual axles can weigh up to 40,000 and still cross the bridge. A fifth axle permits an additional 12,000 pounds. Most tractor-trailers have about five axles but no more, Huff said.

In addition to the cargo it carries, the truck’s own weight is included in the restriction. Huff said most large trucks weigh about 30,000 pounds.

He said Wright might have legally crossed the bridge if he included his truck in the weight estimate, but the Amory driver was definitely over the legal limit.

Darrell Harp of Darrell Harp Enterprises said Wednesday that his driver actually had between 20,000 and 21,000 pounds of cargo in a four-axle truck. Harp then estimated the total weight of cargo and truck at 41,000. That would be about a half-ton over the bridge’s limit, but Harp said it could have been slightly less.

“We stay right,” he said, “and I would say the average trucker does stay legal, because it’s too much of a hassle not to.”

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal could not verify the number of axles on the Amory truck.

The Mississippi Trucking Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Of the 45 deficient, state-owned bridges in Northeast Mississippi, 12 have weight restrictions imposed to prevent collapse.

Inspectors check all the region’s state-owned bridges every six months and evaluate the deficient ones every three months, said MDOT bridge inspector Mitchell Brezeal.

MDOT also reinforces the spans with extra pilings or other features to keep them safe until they can be replaced. The region’s three worst bridges are scheduled for replacement in 2010, said MDOT maintenance engineer Mark Holley.