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Ashland bridge closed for safety concerns

May. 24, 2013 @ 06:43 AM

ASHLAND -- Kentucky highway officials closed the Ben Williamson Memorial Bridge about 9:45 a.m. Thursday for safety reasons, causing traffic problems in Ironton as motorists tried to get back to Kentucky. The one-way bridge, which brings traffic from Ohio to Kentucky, will be closed at least through the holiday weekend.

Officials weren't sure how long beyond that the green-painted, two-lane span connecting U.S. 52 in Ohio to U.S. 23 and U.S. 60 in Ashland would be closed to traffic.

"We experienced a tremendous amount of traffic Thursday morning," Ironton Mayor Rich Blankenship said. "Our office was getting a number of calls. It's an inconvenience, but people are going to have to deal with it."

While the traffic issues were concentrated in Ironton on Thursday, Ashland Police Chief Rob Ratliff said his city could face problems if the closure is long term.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet reduced the weight limit on the bridge to 10 tons earlier this week after an inspection and reports that a vehicle had struck a weight-bearing, diagonal support beam. The bridge brings 20,000 vehicles per day from Ohio to 12th Street and Winchester Avenue in downtown Ashland.

The bridge was closed as a safety measure, Allen Blair, spokesman for the cabinet's District 9 Department of Highways office, said Thursday. The span was struck in such a way to cause a risk to the entire structure, he said. It isn't known how the bridge was damaged, he said.

"We're looking at permanent and possible short-term fixes," Blair said. A long-term fix could take through the summer, he said. "If we can ensure that no vehicles over 10 tons use the bridge, we could open it sooner."

About 12 percent of the traffic is commercial traffic and that's the concern for vehicles weighing more than 10 tons, he said. "If we can keep vehicles weighing more than 10 tons off it, it would be OK for passenger cars," he said.

Options including having law enforcement patrol the bridge entrance on a 24-hour per day, seven-days a week basis to keep heavy trucks off it, Blair said. Kentucky officials decided to close the bridge after seeing vehicles weighing more than 10 tons on the bridge despite signs prohibiting it.

Highway crews placed barricades at the bridge and were setting up signage and detours throughout the day, Blair said. Engineers continue to assess repair plans and are investigating options to alleviate the traffic disruption of closing the bridge, he said.

"While we understand the inconvenience this bridge closure will cause, it is the right thing to do in terms of protection the traveling public," Bart Bryant, District 9 chief engineer said in a prepared release.

Traffic is being detoured at the Jesse Stuart Memorial Bridge near Greenup, Ky., and to the Nick Joe Rahall II bridge in Huntington, Blair said.

Ashland Mayor Chuck Charles said city officials recommended the blue-painted, three-lane Simeon Willis Bridge at 13th Street be converted to handle both northbound and southbound traffic if the closure lasts for an extended period of time. The bridge currently handles traffic northbound out of Ashland to Coal Grove, Ohio.

A decision hasn't been made whether the repairs can be made in-house or whether an outside contractor will be hired to make repairs, Blair said.

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