Tom Barton: Much-needed repairs coming to scariest overpass in Savannah

I don’t know about you, but after the collapse of the I-85 overpass in Atlanta on May 11, I’ve spent more time watching and worrying every time I drive underneath one of these concrete and steel roadways hanging over my noggin.

 

The fact that most of them were built by low-bidders who squeezed as many nickels as they could to win the contract only adds to the discomfort level.

I can think of only one word: Duck, and not the feathered variety. Not that a head duck will do much good if several tons of collapsing road material are suddenly unleashed to follow the law of gravity.

So last week at the gym, where Hal interrupted my treadmill session to tell me about one of the most frightful overpasses he has ever seen, I was forced to pay attention. If a gentleman like Hal was going to violate the time-honored tradition of not mixing workouts with business, I knew it had to be about something serious.

Turns out he was right. He wanted to tell me about the scariest highway overpass in Savannah.

There is something frightfully amiss with the Truman Parkway overpass on DeRenne Avenue. Seeing is believing. The next time you are in this busy area, I encourage you to look at the shoddy condition of the concrete-covered embankment just to the east of the southbound Truman overpass on the north side of DeRenne. If you are headed north on the Truman and exiting onto DeRenne (westbound), you’ll get a full frontal view of how not to construct a proper overpass.

It will take your breath away and make you want to say prayers for motorists who drive over it each day.

And if you are driving underneath the darn thing, you’ll want to curse the traffic for moving too slowly and want to hit the gas, while ducking your head under the driver’s seat until you clear Waters Avenue.

First, before I go further, let me repeat what city and county officials said: This overpass is still structurally sound; there is no danger of imminent collapse.

My initial reaction was, “Where did you get your engineering degree? From inside a box of Captain Crunch or Lucky Charms?”

Large heavy sheets of thick concrete, apparently installed to protect the embankments under the twin overpasses from runoff-related erosion, appear to be collapsing of their own weight— mainly because there appears to be no foundation, like dirt, gravel or other base, underneath to hold it up. Instead, much of this weight had been supported by thin air.

The gaping sink-hole-like opening appears large enough to swallow up one of the county’s CAT buses. And to the naked eye (mine) it looks to be getting worse.

Of course, I don’t have an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. But you don’t have to wear pocket-protectors or nerd-glasses to see that this gaping hole poses a risk and shouldn’t be there. Maybe at some point, this is what passed for government work. No longer. Whatever the public paid for this shoddy-looking concrete job, it should get a big chunk of its money back.

Bret Bell, the deputy assistant to Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez, said this part of the Truman Parkway, which runs through the city, is maintained by Chatham County.

County Engineer Leon Davenport confirmed that fact. He further said that the section of the parkway that failed occurred in the Phase 3 segment. The construction was completed in the early 2000s and was overseen by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

“As with all things maintenance is an important aspect of any form of infrastructure,” Davenport said in an email. And over the years that maintenance responsibility has been back and forth between the City of Savannah and Chatham County. Although this portion of Truman Parkway lies within the City of Savannah, Chatham County has not turned over this section to them.

And that scheduling seems to be good news for the city, which won’t get stuck with a costly lemon — my words, not his.

“The failure is not a result of faulty workmanship,” Davenport continued. “A seal that was put in place years ago deteriorated and allowed water to enter at the top of the bridge structure. This constant flow of storm water eroded the section under the bridge until you got the result as shown in your picture. Our part of the world has highly erosive soils (sandy) that need extra care to ensure that failures do not occur.

“This will be one of the first sections that the County repairs before turning Phase 3 over to the City. The County bid the corrective work and the contractor will begin the work in the next week or two. But as I stated previously, this does not affect the structural integrity of the roadway. The abutment that holds the bridge up is held by pilings under the bridge.

“I understand your concerns with regards to the issue that occurred on I-85. That was a true lesson learned in what we place under our structures,” he added.

So if the DOT oversaw the construction of this overpass about 17 years ago, didn’t any of their hard-hats inspect the finished product before writing a check? As Davenport said, the soil in our part of Georgia is prone to erosion. It’s hardly a secret. We also live in a hurricane zone, where torrential rains are facts of almost everyday life. If the seals aren’t properly installed in any outdoor project, you’re asking for trouble. Not to pile on the DOT too much, but maybe the department should devote more attention to constructing and inspecting things, not cutting down trees along I-16.

Left unanswered is how much all this repair work is going to cost and who is going to pay for it. And finally, how many other overpass construction project supervised by the DOT have the same potential defect.

But one thing is certain. Once the repair work is finished, it will be reassuring to drive underneath this overpass without having to remember to duck.

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor for the Savannah Morning News. tom.barton@savannahnow.com

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