The Illinois Department of Transportation tried to reduce the weight limit to 15 tons in November, but the signs went largely ignored as truck drivers racked up nearly $70,000 in traffic tickets.
"There were so many cases of noncompliance from the trucking industry," said Keith Miley, an operations engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation's Carbondale office. "To ensure the safety of the public, we decided to just close it down. We weren't willing to take a risk for regular motorists using that bridge."
The 82-year-old bridge has 108 deck beams, of which about 25 have shown significant signs of rust and deterioration, Miley said. State engineers are planning repairs, which will be let out for bid June 17. The state expects the work to be completed by the end of the year, he said.
About 3,500 vehicles use the bridge each day, of which 800 are tractor-trailers. The bridge is 5,184 feet long and carries U.S. 60/62 over the Mississippi River. The bridge is just south of Cairo, near another bridge across the Ohio River into Wickliffe, Ky. The Ohio River bridge remains open.
Cairo police chief Gary Hankins said the closed bridge will no doubt cause minor inconvenience for motorists.
"But I don't think it will affect us too much," Hankins said. "I'd rather see them add four miles onto people's trips and another five or six minutes than to have them driving on an unsafe bridge."
The closed bridge already has caused heavier traffic through Cairo, especially in the morning and early evening. That's because the closed bridge requires people to drive through Cairo to catch Interstate 57 if they are heading to Missouri. The same is required of motorists trying to get to Kentucky from Illinois or Missouri.
The bridge could have stayed open until repairs began but for truckers ignoring weight limits, Miley said. The weight-limit signs were posted Nov. 29, but trucks kept rolling. Over one 10-day period, 53 citations were written and at least that many trucks were redirected by police, Miley said.
"Law enforcement contacted us with concerns that there was a really high noncompliance rate," he said. "The state police are not in a position to have somebody enforcing that area around the clock. You know as well as I do word gets out when there's no enforcement on site."
The project will take until the end of the year, he said, because repair plans are still being drawn up. When the bridge reopens, it will have the legal limit restrictions of up to 40 tons. At a minimum, the floor beams will have to be replaced, Miley said. The bridge deck sits on the floor beams. Deck joints have seen deterioration over the years. Plans aren't finalized, though Miley said there has been no discussion to replace the bridge.
(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
U.S. 60/62 bridge south of Cairo, Ill.