Cohen to Explore Options for Aging Bridge

Mar. 27, 2012The Houston Chronicle

Houston City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen says she understands a community group’s concerns that the Yale Street bridge needs to be rehabilitated and that it should be protected against use by heavy load trucks.

What the District C council representative is unsure of is where funding would come from to rehabilitate the Heights-area bridge.

“I am open to seeing what funding may be out there to rehabilitate the bridge,” Cohen said, adding that she understands the importance of keeping intact the historic integrity of the bridge, which was built in 1931.

The bridge is on Yale Street between Washington Boulevard and Interstate 10 and crosses White Oak Bayou. For now, the city has issued a load-limit restriction to extend the life of the bridge, which means commercial trucks such as box trucks, fire trucks, buses and even UPS package delivery vans may not cross the structure.

Cohen is arranging to meet with leaders from the community group, Responsible Urban Development for Houston, to discuss concerns the group outlined in a letter sent to her office March 7.

In the letter, RUDH, a volunteer group of citizens from the Heights and West End neighborhoods of Houston, states that its most immediate concern is keeping construction vehicles traveling to the nearby construction site of a Walmart from using the bridge.

The Ainbinder Co., a Houston-based real estate firm, is developing the site. As of presstime, representatives with Ainbinder and Walmart did not responded to calls and emailed messages.

In a letter to Cohen, RUDH wrote, “We would like to know what steps your office is taking to prevent hundreds of 70,000 pound cement mixers from staging on and traversing over the Yale Street bridge.”

Cohen said that a member of her staff has contacted the real estate developer to discuss the safety of the bridge and urged them to adhere to load-limit restrictions. She said no one from her office had contacted Walmart regarding the bridge.

Cohen wonders if a private-public partnership could be formed with the real estate developers or Walmart to help fund the bridge’s rehabilitation.

“If they want to be a part of the community, it may be wise to partner with the community in rehabilitating the bridge,” she said. “It would be a strong community revitalization effort on their part.”

The Texas Department of Transportation performs bridge safety inspections under the state’s Bridge Inventory, Inspection and Appraisal Program. A recent assessment of the Yale Street bridge performed by TxDOT resulted in reduction of the maximum traffic-load rating.

The bridge’s rating was reduced from a previous maximum weight load of 40,000 pounds and 21,000 pounds per tandem axle on a vehicle to 8,000 pounds per single axle on a vehicle and 10,000 pounds per tandem axle. In comparison, federal interstate standards set a limit of 20,000 pounds per single axle and 34,000 pounds per tandem axle.

For a standard passenger car with two single axles, the maximum acceptable weight on the Yale Street bridge would be 16,000 pounds, Houston Public Works and Engineering Department spokesperson Alvin Wright said.

“The bridge is safe,” he said. “There is no danger to the public, and they should continue to use the bride as they normally would.”

If commercial trucks continued to use the bridge, Wright said the structure’s life would be shortened, “but will not result in a total failure.”

The city is restricting all commercial trucks, including standard semi-tractor trailers, from using the bridge. Signs noting the restrictions and directing trucks to an alternate route were installed Nov. 22.

The Houston Fire Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Houston Independent School District have been notified and have made route changes as necessary, Wright said.

Despite the posting of “No Thru Trucks” signs, RUDH director Jeffrey Jackson said over-limit dump trucks and cement mixers continue to cross the bridge to access the Walmart development site.

“Signage is clearly not sufficient to stop abuses,” RUDH wrote to Cohen.

In addition to the signs, the Houston Police Department’s Truck Enforcement Unit has been monitoring the bridge for violations on a daily basis, HPD spokesman Kese Smith said.

Since mid-January, the police unit has issued 30 citations to truck drivers in violation of the load-limit restriction. Officers have also conducted a number of truck inspections while monitoring the bridge, Smith said.

“The inspections are less bridge-related, but check to make sure the trucks have proper equipment, breaks are up to speed, and that they are not a hazard to other motorists,” he said.

TxDOT is scheduled to inspect the bridge again January 2014.