Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
With an average of more than 35,000 vehicles crossing daily, the Interstate 25 bridge over the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque is experiencing a $1 million emergency.
That’s the estimated price tag to address a “severe public safety” issue discovered by the state Department of Transportation more than six months ago during a bridge inspection of the underbelly of the north- and southbound lanes at the river.
A temporary repair some months back shored up the bridge, but no oversized loads are allowed.
“If this location is not treated expeditiously, the bridge could fail completely,” states a DOT justification for seeking a no-bid emergency procurement last month.
DOT officials asked for the emergency purchase because they weren’t able to find a local construction company on the state’s preapproved list that had the time or the workers to do a more permanent fix.
“Contractors are so busy right now, they don’t have time to schedule urgent repairs. And we can’t just wait for the contractor to get to it whenever they can,” said Jill Mosher, assistant district engineer for DOT’s District 3 in the Albuquerque area.
“I am declaring an emergency at the said location,” wrote District Engineer Justin Gibson in the emergency purchase request for construction services and materials. Damage to the bearings on the bridge structure has created an “unsafe condition,” he wrote.
The heavily used river crossing “not only serves interstate travel, regional travel, but (also) serves as one of the limited river crossings in the Albuquerque area for commuters,” Gibson wrote. “This interstate segment also has a high percentage of truck traffic.”
The traffic and loads, combined with the age of the structure, caused damage in five different piers on the north- and southbound bridges over the river, records show. The bridge was built in 1973.
The DOT has hired AUI Inc. of Albuquerque on a $1 million contract. AUI was the only contractor that responded to the DOT’s request for repairs, which detailed the scope of work. Two others, which perform DOT repair work under a price agreement, either had full schedules for 2022 or did not have crews available.
Work isn’t expected to start until next month, after which the interstate will be reduced to one lane each way at night, depending on which side is being repaired.
Mosher said damage to the bridge structure was discovered during a regular bi-annual inspection last November.
The DOT used a specialized type of crane to examine the area under the bridge.
“Two detailed inspections about a year apart showed significant increase in distress at the pier locations,” the DOT request stated. “Similar distress had been found previously and repaired.”
The damage appeared to be caused by brittle concrete that can occur over time and cold temperatures contracting the bridge girders that locked up the bearings, causing the bridge to become rigid and transfer loading to weaker elements.
That led to immediate concern for the “potential failure of various spans of the (northbound and southbound) bridges,” the request stated, so maintenance crews immediately mobilized to provide temporary shoring.
Mosher said the bridge can carry only reduced loads, so vehicles with oversized loads will have to find alternate routes.
Damage to the structures’ pier caps and bearings was similar to what occurred at the bridge over the river at Rio Bravo Boulevard, Mosher said. That bridge had an emergency repair more than two years ago.
“What happened on Rio Bravo and, now, what’s happening here on I-25 is actually happening on other bridges in the state, as well,” Mosher told the Journal.
“In terms of fixes that need to be done (in the Albuquerque area), obviously this is a huge priority because there’s elements of the bridge that are in a critical state, so we’re going to be patching this up so that we can open the bridge back up to full service like we did on the Rio Bravo bridge,” Mosher said.
Even then, the Rio Bravo bridge is being inspected every three months, she said, while the DOT works on design of the bridge replacement. The delay in getting that river crossing fully designed is due to a lack of funding, she said.
The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last year sets aside about $110 billion for roads, bridges and major infrastructure projects. Of that, about $40 billion is for bridge repair, replacement and rehabilitation.
But there are limitations on how much can be spent for what purpose, Mosher said.
“So, like right now, we’ll have the (Rio Bravo) bridge designed, but we don’t have the construction funding to make it happen,” she said. “Because, with inflation and what’s going on in the construction industry, with prices escalating so much, it’s now a $78 million bridge replacement … (instead of) what we thought was going to be maybe a $50 million bridge replacement.”