COLUMBIA – The last thing you want to see beneath a bridge — not counting a troll — is air where a support beam should be.
But that's exactly what residents of Rustic Road see when they venture beneath a bridge that is the only access point for 12 houses on the south side of the structure.
The deteriorating support beams, among other things, caused the Missouri Department of Transportation to lower the weight rating of the bridge from 40 tons to 15 tons during a routine bridge inspection in 2009.
The bridge can still handle most day-to-day traffic, but residents are concerned that heavier vehicles used for maintenance or emergencies can't currently cross. Residents say they are also worried by the pace of the response to the problem by Columbia and Boone County.
What can't cross
"One of the biggest problems I have is if something happens, we can't get a fire truck across," resident Keith Strausser said. Strausser lives south of the bridge and runs a small business, Advantage Contractors, from his home.
Fire trucks, which weigh between 20 and 25 tons, aren't the only vehicles that are over the limit. City garbage trucks — which usually weigh between 16 and 18 tons when empty — already have stopped crossing the bridge, said Stuart Spradling, another resident who lives south of the bridge. He said he has a private garbage company pick up his trash, and its trucks continue to cross the bridge.
Instead of sending the standard residential garbage truck, the city sends a smaller one, Spradling said. He said the trash is dumped near the start of Rustic Road by the intersection of Legion Lane and East Broadway, where a residential garbage truck collects it.
At one point, Strausser attempted to fix his driveway, but the cement truck sent to his house to pour the new slab couldn't cross the bridge.
In the event of an emergency, Columbia Fire Department Battallion Chief Steven Sapp said the department would attempt to park north of the bridge and walk if the emergency was close enough or didn't require specialized equipment on the truck.
However, Sapp said, if an emergency is too far down the road or requires a lot of equipment, firefighters would drive over the bridge at a speed slower than the 35 mph limit. He said that is how they handle going over bridges with low weight ratings on longer residential driveways, for example.
In addition to portions of the I-beams supporting the bridge being rusted through, a portion of the concrete curb has completely broken off. The metal guardrails along the bridge are bent out of shape and covered in rust, and the one-lane surface of the bridge shows extensive signs of wear.
Additionally, the bridge floods when it rains 5 inches or more in a day, Strausser said. Once, the water was 2 feet deep over the bridge and stretched over the road 100 feet north and 20 feet south of the bridge, he said.
Spradling and his wife said the bridge has flooded six times since 1986. Strausser said the bridge floods rarely — though he recalled seeing water reach the hood of a neighbor's SUV as they tried to drive across the bridge during a flood.
After MoDOT lowered the bridge's weight rating, Boone County commissioned a study from the Bridge Engineering Assistance Program.
The report, which detailed the state of the bridge and recommended what actions to take to correct it, said: "The city should continue the planning and budgeting process through the Columbia Area Transportation Study Organization to replace the narrow, deteriorating and under-strength structure," and that it "should rehabilitate the bridge as needed to keep it in service until that time that it is replaced."
Rustic Road residents have always had problems getting help for bridge maintenance.
The road is on one of the eastern boundaries of Columbia, and maintenance is shared by the city and the county, said Jill Stedem, public information specialist for the Columbia Public Works Department.
Boone County Public Information Officer Lamar Henderson and Stedem said responsibility for the bridge also is shared by the city and county. Stedem said the bridge was on the Capital Improvement Program budget as a 10-plus year project, but there isn't a repair cost estimate yet.
Strausser said the problem isn't so much figuring out whom to call with issues about the road, but that when he calls the city or the county, he's referred elsewhere.
"Neither wants to take responsibility," he said. "We can't even get the potholes fixed on it."
Not falling down
Despite the deterioration, the bridge is not in immediate danger of failure, Henderson said.
MoDOT's Bridge Engineering Assessment Team report also said the bridge was safe for the small amount of everyday traffic it carries as long as the traffic is traveling at the posted speed limit of 35 mph.
Even Strausser isn't worried about that.
"On the other hand," he said, "my house hasn't been on fire yet."