Time is running out for the historic Yale Street bridge over White Oak Bayou as its condition deteriorates and surrounding development places increasing demands on it.
Some in the Heights- area community believe more should be done to preserve the 1930s-era structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But state transportation engineers say it can’t handle the required loads.
The bridge, just south of Interstate 10, was teetering on closure in 2012 when Texas Department of Transportation engineers lowered its load limit – the maximum weight of a vehicle – to 3,000 pounds per axle. A large, loaded sport utility vehicle could exceed that limit, not to mention the delivery trucks becoming a more common sight as commercial development flourishes along Yale and nearby Washington Avenue.
The lowered weight limit concerned neighbors, who pressed for answers.
“What was agreed upon then was, ‘When we can make it happen, we need a new bridge,’ ” said City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents the area. “We have got to be able to accommodate the traffic.”
ven at its current 10,000-pound-per-axle limit, the bridge isn’t up to the demand that commercial and residential growth are placing on the neighborhood. Trucks that should be using Yale are now diverting, putting more of a burden on nearby streets such as Heights Boulevard.
At a public meeting Tuesday, TxDOT officials will lay out plans to replace the bridge. As of the last traffic study conducted by the city, about 7,500 vehicles used the bridge each day.
“There has to be some look at whether there are any other viable alternatives,” TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. “But the proposal is to replace it.”
Construction of a replacement bridge is scheduled to begin in September 2016. Yet some are not convinced that this is necessary.
“I take the position that the bridge can stay and it has been improved,” said Kirk Farris, a local historic preservationist who has worked with TxDOT to preserve other bridges.
Farris, president of Art & Environmental Architecture Inc., and the Texas Historical Commission prepared the 2011 application that placed the Yale Street bridge on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the application, preservationists said the bridge “is one of a few remaining examples of bayou crossings constructed during the city’s street improvement bond program of the 1930s.”
Like the beloved Sabine Street bridge, built in 1924, the Yale bridge was constructed in the midst of a much different Houston. The local baseball team then was the Buffs, not the Astros; fans weren’t cheering for a young outfielder named George Springer but for an up-and-coming lefthanded pitcher known as “Dizzy” Dean.
Farris, in the application, said maintenance of the bridge was shoddy – filling potholes and cracks with black patches rather than making more substantial repairs.
The historic designation affects how officials can proceed with replacing it but does not preclude the bridge’s demolition.
The debate is clouded by a lack of clarity regarding the effects of recent repairs.
Officials placed carbon strips along the bridge to increase its load capacity. When that work was completed, TxDOT increased the load limit on the bridge to 10,000 pounds per axle – higher than a city consultant recommended in 2012 when it analyzed the bridge and suggested the carbon strip fix.
At the time, the Yale Street bridge was one of the lowest-scoring spans in the state. On a scale with 100 at the top, it scored a 7 prior to any repairs. Much of that is because the bridge – designed for a different era – doesn’t meet modern standards for lighting, lane width and other factors.
TxDOT typically suggests replacing bridges when they score 50 or lower, though the decision can be affected by available funds and other factors.
After recent improvements, the Yale bridge scored a 25.
If the bridge must be replaced, neighborhood residents said, some parts of it should be incorporated into the new span or into a nearby park.
Cohen said many neighborhoods in her district – mostly west of downtown and largely inside Loop 610 – face a balancing act between the investment coming in and the features that make them unique.
“Houston, for a long time, never kept anything,” Cohen said. “I would say for the most part, what we have improved on that.”