NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – If you live in Gallup you know County Road 43. It’s an unpaved shortcut locals use to avoid traffic congestion. Each day hundreds of motorists cross the Rio Puerco on a rickety aluminum structure known as bridge #8085. However, if you knew the history of 8085 you might think twice about driving on it.
“This is one of the worst bridges in the County,” McKinley County Manager Anthony Dimas says. “I don’t think it would even meet the bare minimum of standards for bridges today. We’d be lucky if we get an ambulance over it. Other than that, fire trucks, water trucks, tankers, school buses, it isn’t going to cross it,” Dimas says.
Bridge 8085 didn’t always span the Rio Puerco. The structure originally saw service in Vietnam where it was used by the Marine Corps to move troops and trucks through the jungle. After the war, the portable bridge was dismantled, shipped back to the U.S., sold to McKinley County as military surplus, and reassembled over the Rio Puerco in the mid-’70s. Even though the bridge was designed for temporary use, it served as a river crossing in McKinley County for almost 50 years.
Just down the county road about 10 miles is Superman Canyon and the only way across is another Vietnam war hand-me-down. “This (bridge) is military surplus and most of our bridges that we do have are military surplus,” says McKinley County Commissioner Billy Moore. Commissioner Moore says the Superman Canyon bridge is so inadequate that school buses and emergency vehicles cannot safely cross. “If (a house across the canyon) was on fire they would probably have to take an alternate route to get to it which could be another 15, 20 minutes,” Commissioner Moore says.
In fact, more than three dozen obsolete military surplus bridges dot the McKinley County landscape. Although the County does what it can to maintain them, most are beyond repair and there simply isn’t money to replace them. “We have forty-eight bridges that are just like (Bridge 8085). Right now forty-six need to be replaced,” says County Manager Anthony Dimas. Of the 40 plus Vietnam-era, military surplus bridges in McKinley County Dimas says none meet even minimum structural standards.
And it’s not just McKinley County.
In rural Rio Arriba County, 60-year-old bridge 9583 was closed after inspectors found it to be unsafe.
In San Juan County bridge 8118 is an aging relic built 94 years ago when Calvin Coolidge was President. The structure is still in use but in poor condition and needs to be replaced.
Following a freak rainstorm two years ago floodwaters destroyed 57-year-old bridge 1104 which spanned the Cimmaron River in Union County. A temporary detour is in place until a replacement bridge can be constructed.
Out of the more than 4000 bridges in New Mexico, scores of obsolete, antiquated structures are still in use across the state.
“The last thing any of us want is for a bridge to fail or a bridge to be washed out,” says Department of Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Sandoval. Each year, the DOT allocates some $14 million to bridge safety. “We have a whole division assigned to that,” Secretary Sandoval says. “It’s one of the few items in our inventory that gets inspected every single year no matter what. So it’s a very high priority. We want to make sure (bridges are) always safe,” Secretary Sandoval said.
In Quay County bridge 1042 is an outdated antique built-in 1931. The only reason it’s still in use is because of low traffic volume and rural location.
Aging timber bridges like Sandoval County’s bridge 8052 are typical of many still in use across the state. They’ve outlived their usefulness years ago and don’t meet current structural standards.
The oldest bridge in New Mexico is not the worst. The first transport across Grant County’s bridge 1894 was likely a horse and buggy. Built-in 1908, four years before Statehood, the aluminum truss structure outside Bayard is in “fair” condition and is still in use.
“The average age of our bridges here in New Mexico is 50 years,” says DOT Secretary Mike Sandoval. “When you don’t repair these in a timely manner, it just gets worse to fix and more expensive to fix. A lot of bridges have several critical points to it and so there is a lot that can go wrong and that’s one of the reasons that we inspect them on a yearly basis,” Secretary Sandoval said.
The casual motorist driving across the 40-year-old bridge 8371 in San Miguel County couldn’t know the concrete supports below its deck are critically decayed. Until there’s a replacement, heavy vehicles like school buses and fire engines are prohibited from crossing.
Bridge 5257 in San Miguel County was constructed in 1952. Over the past 70 years, time has taken its toll on 5257. A routine inspection last year identified troubling defects. “Two broken beams were identified which required immediate attention,” DOT Bridge Engineer Jeff Vigil says. “We believe that a heavy load probably went over the bridge and cracked that beam. There were two such beams on the bridge,” Vigil said. New support beams were fabricated to keep the bridge open to light traffic. 5257 is scheduled for replacement.
Just down the road, you will come to bridge 5995, built during the Eisenhower administration. “Water has infiltrated the structure and that water has caused the concrete to deteriorate and start to fall off of the structure exposing the reinforcing steel bars,” DOT Bridge Engineer Shane Kuhlman says. Kuhlman adds, the bridge is safe for motorists but if deficiencies are not addressed the structural integrity will be at risk.
And just because a bridge is made out of steel and concrete doesn’t mean it will last forever. Exhibit A? The 50-year-old dual I-25 spans over the Rio Grande just south of Albuquerque. “We found six locations where the concrete directly underneath the beams where the beams sit has broken away,” says DOT Bridge Engineer Gary Kinchen. “It’s not something where we believe there is any imminent danger to the traveling public, but it is certainly something that needs to be addressed so that it doesn’t get worse and then create a danger,” Kinchen said. The price tag for the I-25 bridge repair is expected to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It will cost an estimated half-billion dollars just to bring all of the state’s bridges up to fair condition. Passage of the new infrastructure law last year will mean an additional $45 million a year for New Mexico bridge repair and replacement. “That is a huge deal. And that’s going to make a huge difference in trying to address these critical and poor bridges in our state,” says DOT Cabinet Secretary Mike Sandoval.
However, over in Gallup, the McKinley County Manager isn’t optimistic that much of that money will flow into Western New Mexico anytime soon. In fact, Anthony Dimas doesn’t expect to see a new bridge over the Rio Puerco even in his lifetime. “It’s very sad. We don’t have the resources,” Dimas said.