Shawnee County Bridge Causes Safety Concerns

TOPEKA, Kan. - An aging Shawnee County bridge continues to be at the center of safety concerns, but nothing can be done until the county has enough money to replace the Willard Bridge.

The bridge connects Rossville and U.S. 24 to I-70.

Shawnee County Director of Public Works, Tom Vlach, assured me if the bridge weren't safe they'd close it down, but he says the bridge is still a top priority project for the county.

Residents who drive the bridge say they're concerned with how narrow the bridge is and it's condition in the winter. "It'd be nice to have a new bridge," said Bill Raine. "But where's the money gonna come from?"

That's what Shawnee County officials are wondering. Vlach said it will take just under $30 million to replace Willard Bridge.

"It's one of the projects I feel Shawnee County would have difficulty funding it all on its own," said Vlach. "That's why we are wanting to get it put on the comprehensive transportation program so that we have some assistance from the state and federal levels."

The Willard Bridge is the same type of bridge as the one that collapsed in Minneapolis in August of 2007. It's considered a fracture critical bridge because of its pin-and-hanger type: a non-redundant structure. That means if any one component fails - such as the bridge pins - the whole thing could collapse.

"As time goes on and trucks that are overloaded use that bridge, it will slowly fatigue the pins," said Vlach.

Vlach says that, for now at least, drivers of Willard Bridge don't have to worry about safety.

"The bridge is safe now," he said. "If it wasn't we would have it closed."

Some 4,000 cars cross the Willard Bridge each day. In 2007, after the Minneapolis collapse, the bridge got new weight limits. The previous limit of 40 tons was reduced to 36 tons. Vlach said that was in part to extend the life of the bridge.

The transportation projects go before the city council Tuesday.