A Missouri Department of Transportation worker, part of a crew making repairs under the Mississippi River bridge at Cape Girardeau, gave a friendly warning Wednesday afternoon as he walked past a group of inspectors and other transportation officials who were waiting near the river's edge for a ride to take them back to Missouri.
"I wouldn't stand underneath the bridge without a hat," he said. "Rust falls down all the time."
For those who aren't inspectors, the bridge may not appear to be the safest means for crossing the river.
But Missouri and Illinois transportation officials say that even though the bridge is not much to look at, it is still safe and it will last until the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge's opening, which is anticipated in a year.
About 15 MoDOT and IDOT officials gave the bridge a glance-over Wednesday, just two weeks after a more precise inspection by MoDOT's "sweepers" was performed on the bridge.
Wednesday's inspection was more of a reunion than an examination. Both states had transportation representatives there as traffic was reduced to one lane. Two or three officials did most of the inspecting while the rest discussed other things in small groups, including the construction of the new bridge.
The main purpose of getting the two states' officials together was to discuss what repairs needed to be done. The same annual procedure is done at all the bridges that cross the Mississippi River. Very little was discussed after the inspection, mainly because no major improvements will be made on the bridge.
"We'd spend a lot if we thought it would have to last us another 30 years," said Stan Johnson, district engineer with MoDOT. "Right now, we're just repairing what has to be repaired."
Unlike the other bridges, the 74-year-old structure in Cape Girardeau has been getting extra attention. The "sweeper" crews, which do a more technical and sophisticated inspection, perform quarterly inspections while most bridges get them once every two years, said John Wilson, a bridge inspector who works out of the Jefferson City headquarters.
The sweepers' examination two weeks ago revealed that the bridge needed some clip angles installed to the bottom of the bridge, Wilson said. Clip angles are brackets used for extra reinforcement. The installation of the clip angles coincided with the timing of a major concrete pour for the construction of the new bridge.
On Wednesday, Wilson was looking for obvious cracks in what is called the bottom cord or the main steel, horizontal beam that bears the most weight. He didn't find any glaring weaknesses that would compromise the structure of the bridge.
Wilson said the only bridges he's seen that are comparable to Cape Girardeau's poor condition are over the Missouri River.
"There's no danger, but at this stage it can decay pretty quick," Wilson said.
There are places on the edge of the south side of the bridge where the road surface is broken and the river can be seen through the steel grid.
Wilson acknowledged that the road itself is in poor shape, but that the steel grid underneath is what supports the traffic, not the concrete.
At one place in the bridge, a thick chain is holding up a separated piece of metal so it doesn't fall off. Wilson said the dangling part does not bear weight.
Even if they don't jeopardize the safety of motorists, these sights make the bridge a horror trip for some.
"It scares the heck out of me," said Larry Crane of East Cape Girardeau, Ill. "It seems like it could fall at any time, especially when they're working on it and you're just sitting there and it's shaking."
Dianna Pearl, also of East Cape Girardeau, echoed those thoughts.
"I feel like it's very unsafe since they're working on it constantly," she said. "I hate to sit on it when all that traffic is going across it."
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