LEXINGTON — Farmers who use the bridge linking Lexington and Purcell to haul their goods say they can’t use it now because of new weight limitations.
The James C. Nance Memorial Bridge was closed Jan. 31 after state officials discovered the truss system was cracked and needed emergency repairs. After more than $20 million was spent to make it safe for public use, the bridge reopened in June.
State Transportation Department officials, however, imposed new weight restrictions because of concerns about its structural integrity.
Previously, the bridge had a standard 40-ton weight limit, but a sign posted now puts the weight limit at 36 tons.
Farmers say that won’t accommodate the trucks they use.
“For every load of grain we go out with, it’s taking the driver or whoever is driving that truck an extra hour to go through Norman and come back,” said Jerry Moffat, who farms wheat and corn.
Moffat, 46, said his drivers have to go north through Norman and back down Interstate 35 to Maysville. A trip that used to be 36 miles there and back is now more than 100 miles.
Transportation officials promised farmers the bridge would be back to its originally capacity, Moffat said.
“I understand if it’s a safety issue, which it obviously is now, but my point is when we had the crew there working on the bridge, how come we stopped repairing it?”
Casey Shell, chief engineer for the Transportation Department, said the plan was to get the bridge back to full capacity, but additional damage was discovered during the repair process that made that plan unfeasible.
It was in the best interest of public safety to lower the weight limit, Shell said.
He compared the state of the bridge to an old wheat truck.
“It’s old and it’s tired, and it’s had a problem,” he said. “So, they may have to put a transmission in the old truck and they do. But, when they go back to using it with the new transmission, it still has an old engine, it’s got bad breaks, it’s got all the other problems, but they got enough good back in it to put it back into use. You can’t afford, and we couldn’t afford on this bridge, to go fix everything that’s wrong with it.”
Moffat said before the bridge was closed, his drivers could take up to five loads of grain per day to the grain elevator in Maysville. Now, with the additional mileage, they are lucky to get three loads delivered. The situation also increases the costs of the products he needs delivered for farming, because companies are forced to take a longer route to get to him.
Shell said the plan now is to build one side of the new bridge and open that up to traffic, then tear down the old bridge before building the second half of the new structure. It could be at least a couple of years before traffic can drive on the first half, he said.
Environmental studies on the impact of a new bridge need to be completed before construction can start, and that may take a few years, he said.
Shell said it was best to be conservative with the weight limit on the current bridge to make sure it will last until the new bridge is ready.
“We didn’t want to have a closure again, and certainly we didn’t want to take any chances on a catastrophic failure,” he said.
Shell estimated the new bridge could cost in the range of $45 million to $50 million.
Doug Northcutt, who owns a large tree farm nearby, said farmers have had to eat the additional costs of operating since the bridge was closed and reopened. He worries the increased costs may cause customers to look somewhere else.
“Everybody watches pennies. I mean, you have to anymore,” Northcutt said. “So, with that, obviously, if they can get it cheaper somewhere else they will. And that comes into play.”