Detroit — Interstate 75's bridge over the Rouge River, a major artery for Downriver commuters and truck traffic, is "structurally deficient" because of its deteriorating deck surface, according to state and federal agencies.
The 48-year-old span, which carries four lanes of traffic each way up to 100 feet over the Rouge and the nearby Marathon refinery, was last inspected in May 2013 and is scheduled for deck replacement in 2017 at an estimated cost of $80 million, said Diane Cross, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Michigan's shortage of highway repair funds makes it impossible to replace the deck sooner, or to build an entirely new span at an estimated cost of $300 million, she said.
"In the meantime, we continue to put Band-Aids on areas that need surgery," Cross said.
Asked if the repairs could be moved up, if Proposal 1 passes next month, Cross said: "It's possible, if it passes and the additional funding is divided up statewide and we get enough of the funding, then our plans for 2017 could start earlier. It's a lot of 'what ifs,' but it is possible."
Proposal 1 would eliminate the 6 percent sales tax on gasoline while raising the overall sales tax by a penny on the dollar to 7 cents, with an estimated $1.3 billion going to roads.
Concerns about the bridge's safety were raised in recent weeks when potholes opened up all the way through the roadway, once in January and again last month.
"I've seen potholes you can see light through," said Dan Cooney, a former mayor and former councilman in River Rouge. "It's scary."
The bridge, which offers a panoramic view of the Detroit skyline to northbound motorists, is one of the region's busiest, carrying 115,000 vehicles a day between Fort and Dearborn streets, according to MDOT traffic counts. These days, it's an even more crucial link between downtown and Downriver because two other spans over the river, on Fort Street and Jefferson Avenue, are closed for repairs.
"Everyone is forced to use the I-75 bridge to get over the moat," Cooney said.
MDOT officials insist the bridge is safe, saying the agency's last inspection found the rest of the span in good shape.
The MDOT inspection rated the deck surface 4 out of possible 9, or "poor," which indicates "advanced corrosion, deterioration, cracking or chipping," according to an agency report. The Rouge span's superstructure, which supports the deck, and its substructure, which supports the superstructure and distributes loads to the below-ground bridge footings, both received ratings of 7, or "good."
"If there was any concern about safety of the bridge, we would close it," Cross said.
Bridge woes span Wayne Co.
The I-75, Fort Street and West Jefferson bridges aren't the only spans in Wayne County that need some TLC.
Of the county's 1,027 bridges, 488 were listed as functionally obsolete in the Federal Highway Administration's 2014 National Bridge Inventory. Another 78 were listed as structurally deficient.
Wayne County had more bridges in poor condition than any other county in the state with 47 percent of its bridges functionally obsolete, according to the federal report, which also listed 30 percent of Oakland County's 470 bridges and 19 percent of Macomb County's 408 bridges as functionally obsolete.
Few, if any, of those spans are as prominent as I-75's Rouge River Bridge, which boasts the largest deck area of any span in Michigan — even the Mackinac Bridge, according to MDOT. Including ramps, the Rouge's deck covers more than 1 million square feet.
Spanning 1.63 miles over the river, the Rouge has four northbound and four southbound lanes, each 12-foot wide. All of the lanes are sandwiched between 7-foot outside shoulders and 5-foot median shoulders.
Built in 1967 for about $25 million, the bridge was designed with continuous and cantilevered steel beams with pin and hangers as well as a reinforced concrete deck and substructure. It has more than 100 million pounds of structural steel.
According to the National Bridge Inventory database, the Rouge's deck has several thousand square feet of deteriorated concrete and random cracks of varying widths scattered across its surface with exposed steel reinforcement.
MDOT officials acknowledge the problems, adding there have been issues with concrete falling from the underside of the Rouge's deck.
Having their fill of potholes
Motorists who use the bridge regularly said the deck's condition makes them nervous.
"I get a little more worried about the condition of my car every time I drive over the bridge," said Melissa Anderson, 21, of Detroit who uses the Rouge span a couple of times a week to visit a friend who lives Downriver. "It's a small car and I can feel every single pothole."
MDOT says it has a handle on the pothole problem.
"(Potholes are) something that probably happen a couple of times a month," said Cross.
She said the potholes rarely go all the way through the pavement. Pictures of big squares cut out of the road that show the reinforcement bars and light below are usually where work crews have begun repairs, Cross said.
State officials said MDOT has invested a considerable amount on repairs, replacements and external post tensioning to keep the superstructure and substructure in good shape.
MDOT estimates it spent $2 million a year between 1975 and 2010 to maintain the bridge, Cross said. Most of the maintenance work on the bridge is done on its substructure, she said.
Replacing the deck will cost more than three times the amount spent building the bridge nearly 50 years ago, and will extend the span's lifespan by another half-century, Cross said. At that point, the entire bridge will need to be replaced.
While all eight of the Rouge's lanes remain open for the next couple of years, frustrated Downriver drivers are waiting for two long-closed bridges over the river to reopen.
MDOT began work in spring 2013 to replace the 1920s-era South Fort Street drawbridge, north and west of the I-75 bridge, and is scheduled to reopen it in mid-June, according to Cross.
In addition, the West Jefferson Avenue bridge, to the south and east of the I-75 bridge, has been out of service since May 2013 when it was lowered onto a passing ship and damaged. Wayne County maintains the bridge, which was built in 1922.
Terry Spryszak, director of Wayne County's Department of Public Services, said the project to repair the bridge is scheduled to begin in June and finish in about a year.
Cooney said the closure of the Jefferson span has made River Rouge "a dead-end street." He started a campaign last year, "Fix the Damn Bridge," to press for a faster reopening of the crossing.
"It's really killing our business owners in town," he said. "People can't keep their doors open because we just don't have the traffic flow."
For information on Michigan construction projects and traffic on interstates, U.S. routes and state roads, go to MDOT's michigan.gov/drive website. There's also a free mobile phone app on MDOT's Roads and Travel page.