Officials: Local bridges are OK |

Officials: Local bridges are OK

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado
The bridge collapse in Minneapolis has sparked questions about the safety of bridges in the valley, such as the Maroon Creek Bridge, shown here under construction. (Aspen Times file)

PITKIN COUNTY Pitkin County officials told several anxious callers this week that the two bridges carrying Highway 82 into Aspen are not in danger of falling any time soon, and that regular inspections will alert local and state agencies if the situation changes.The calls came Thursday in the wake of the disastrous collapse of a highway bridge Wednesday in Minneapolis, said Brian Pettet, road and bridge supervisor for Pitkin County.”I’m as concerned as anyone,” Pettet said, noting that he drives across the bridge as often as any other motorist and declaring, “I feel confident that bridge is safe.”As of Thursday evening, news reports indicated that the death toll stood at 4 from the collapse of the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River. The bridge buckled and fell to pieces Wednesday evening, dumping dozens of vehicles into the swirling waters.

Governors and lawmakers around the nation were ordering immediate bridge inspections after hearing news of the Minneapolis disaster, The Associated Press reported Thursday.Colorado highway officials, with 3,757 bridges in their purview, reported Thursday that 375 of those need “rehabilitation,” or repairs and replacement of damaged parts, and another 110 need complete replacement.The main point of concern among locals, Pettet said, is the 119-year old Maroon Creek bridge, which is carrying its normal load of heavy summer traffic even as Colorado Department of Transportation crews hustle to finish work on a new, four-lane bridge next to the historic one.Pettet said the new bridge, which will open with two lanes for buses and two lanes for private vehicles, could be open to traffic by late fall of this year, but is more likely to open sometime in spring 2008.The old bridge was initially built by the Colorado Midland Railroad in 1888 to hold a relatively narrow-gauge railroad track. Pettet said the original bridge platform was widened in the 1930s to accommodate two lanes of automobile traffic, since the bridge was no longer being used for its original purpose.

The bridge has a rating of 41, on a scale of 100 (one being the worst rating, 100 the best), based on an assessment system for bridges across the country, according to CDOT.The inspection process looks at a bridge’s capacity – how much traffic it can carry safely and how heavy individual vehicles can be – and at the condition of the bridge.The Maroon Creek bridge has long been considered both structurally deficient, given the loads it carries at peak seasons and times of the day, and functionally obsolete as a two-lane structure where four lanes are needed.The bridge developed structural problems in 2003, recalled Joe Elsen, Maroon Creek bridge project engineer for CDOT, and traffic for a while was diverted over McLain Flats Road while the problems were addressed. When the defects were discovered, the bridge’s rating dropped to 9, according to CDOT officials, but the rating increased to 41 after the problems were fixed.

The bridge is now considered structurally sound, Elsen said, although he conceded that plans to replace it accelerated after the structural problems surfaced, and local officials hustled to come up with money to jump-start the process.Advising motorists there is nothing to worry about, Elsen said, “It’s safe. If it wasn’t safe, we’d close it.”The Castle Creek bridge, Elsen said, was built in 1961 and is in much better shape than the older bridge over Maroon Creek. But, even with a rating of 67, the Castle Creek bridge still is functionally obsolete because it is only two lanes wide. Plans now call for it to be replaced with a four-lane bridge of some sort as part of the controversial Entrance to Aspen process, although there is as yet no set date for that project to get under way.After construction of a new bridge and highway connecting to the Highway 82 roundabout, Elsen said, the Castle Creek bridge would essentially become a link from the West End of Aspen, over Castle Creek to the Cemetery Lane neighborhood. The asphalt between the Cemetery Lane and the roundabout would be removed.John Colson’s e-mail address is