OPINION: When good bridges go bad, location matters

A rebuilt bridge is seen crossing over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on McDonough Boulevard Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. The bridge is expected to open to traffic in December and to be fully completed in March 2023, according to a Georgia Department of Transportation spokesperson. (Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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A rebuilt bridge is seen crossing over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on McDonough Boulevard Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. The bridge is expected to open to traffic in December and to be fully completed in March 2023, according to a Georgia Department of Transportation spokesperson. (Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

South Atlanta residents await rebuilding of one of state’s most traveled structurally deficient bridges

South Atlanta is a neighborhood that is changing rapidly, but one thing that hasn’t changed yet is the 98-year-old bridge at McDonough Boulevard.

Built in 1924, the bridge crossing over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks is considered one of the most traveled structurally deficient bridges in the state, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association 2022 Bridge Profile.

It is one of 319 bridges in Georgia that were classified as structurally deficient in 2021, which means that one of the key elements of the bridge is in poor or worse condition.

But the 170-foot bridge still isn’t rebuilt. Residents said progress on the bridge has been a series of starts and stops that began in 2016 when the Georgia Department of Transportation announced it was seeking public input on the bridge replacement and detour route. At the time, one sidewalk and 8 feet of the road were closed to traffic due to deterioration of the bridge.

“This bridge situation is ridiculous! It’s altogether senseless for this bridge to take so long! Insane!” read an October comment on Bridgehunter.com, a database of historical or notable bridges in the U.S.

In November, when President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill was signed into law, $225 million was allotted specifically for bridge replacement and repairs in Georgia. The state has identified needed repairs on 13,720 bridges at a cost of $12 billion.

In 2012, legislative changes consolidated the bridge-funding program into other highway programs, which gave states more flexibility in how to allocate funds, according to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office. States generally must match federal funding with up to 20% state or local funding, but federal funds from the Biden infrastructure law can be used for 100% of the cost of repairing or rehabilitating locally owned off-system bridges.

Despite opposition to the bill from the eight Georgia Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, it seemed help was on the way for the rural or minority communities that are home to some of the most highly traveled structurally unsound bridges.

The McDonough Boulevard bridge had almost 22,000 daily crossings before it closed entirely to traffic. Residents have had to take 30-minute detours whenever trains stop for hours or days on the tracks below, a frequent occurrence which I have written about in previous columns.

ExploreOPINION: Atlanta residents at an impasse over blocked rail crossings

Since 2011, the bridge has earned a poor condition rating, the lowest rating possible in biannual state inspections.

It met the minimum standards to be left in place and in 2017 had a recommended replacement cost of $1 million.

Lakewood resident Shawn McBee said having the bridge closed for so long has almost become a daily inconvenience for residents in the area whenever they leave the house, particularly when they are caught by a train. “This neighborhood and others like it aren’t getting the attention in infrastructure that other, more affluent areas of town would,” said McBee.

In other areas, he said, similar problems would be addressed much more quickly. “I understand (other neighborhoods) run into problems, but those problems would have been resolved with more urgency,” he said.

The situation in south Atlanta makes plain just how much Biden’s infrastructure plan was needed, but the plan’s effectiveness is now threatened by the highest levels of inflation in four decades, resulting in project delays and increasing costs for new and existing projects.

When I reached the Georgia Department of Transportation to ask about the status of the McDonough Boulevard bridge, a District 7 spokesperson shared some of the reasons for the delays: the placement of utilities, landownership conflicts, material supply chain issues, and problems with structural integrity that resulted in the need for an entirely new set of plans to be drawn.

I wasn’t able to get cost information on the project, specifically how the significant delays may have increased costs and how those cost increases have been funded, but in a recent conversation with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, deputy chief engineer Marc Mastronardi said GDOT would prioritize projects that improve the safety of Georgia roads, that he did not see any projects not being completed and that money from the infrastructure law could be used to fill in the hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs that might be incurred.

The bridge is expected to open to traffic in December and to be fully completed in March 2023, according to the GDOT spokesperson, but if it comes down to choosing one project over another, where will this project as well as new projects in long-ignored communities fall on the list of priorities?

Given the history of this bridge, residents in the area have good reason to be skeptical.

“It is sad that income should determine how well an area is serviced by the government,” said McBee, “but that is kind of the reality.”

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