COVINGTON -- More than a year after being damaged by floodwaters, Mt. Tabor Road Bridge remains closed to large vehicles, including fire trucks and school buses.
Vehicles weighing more than 8 tons are not safe to cross, said Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan. Those vehicles could do further damage to the bridge, which suffered scouring during the flood of September 2009. The bridge is safe for passenger vehicles, Morgan said.
Fire trucks from Fire Station No. 9 on Mt. Tabor Road, about 1.3 miles from the bridge, must take a detour route that adds an extra five to six minutes to response time, Morgan said. However, Fire Station No. 7 on Brown Bridge Road, about 3 miles from the bridge, is put on alert any time there is a call in the area and acts as backup. Trucks from Fire Station No. 7 can get to residences in north Almon without taking a detour by driving down Crowell Road. The county also has a mutual aid agreement with Rockdale County, which has a fire station about five minutes away. Ambulances are able to cross the bridge, but school buses are not and also have to take a detour.
Belinda Raynor, a resident of River Watch subdivision, said she's concerned about increased response times for the fire department.
"I don't particularly care for it. If fire trucks can't go over the bridge and have to go around, of course it's going to be longer to get there. But what can be done about it?" she said.
When the Georgia Department of Transportation first inspected the bridge over the Yellow River shortly after the flood, it determined it was safe for all traffic. But Morgan wasn't so sure. She had a county-hired consultant examine the bridge and the consultant found the scouring and recommended setting a weight limit of 8 tons.
"My recommendation was it's better to err on the side of caution," said Morgan, who expressed her concerns to the Board of Education and the fire department. "We all agreed it's not worth one accident."
But county commissioners accepted the DOT's report, and so did the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA would not allocate any money to repair the bridge and commissioners rejected a proposal for design work, based on the DOT's report.
"Commissioners were trying to protect the taxpayers because the DOT said it was OK," Morgan said. Morgan asked commissioners to allow her to keep the bridge closed to large vehicles and have it inspected every 90 days for additional damage. After a year had passed, she asked DOT to inspect again. A dive team came out on Oct. 27 and this time they agreed with the consultant's report.
"They came up and were shocked at the scouring around the pier," Morgan said.
Though the county must wait on the DOT's recommendation for repairs, it will not receive financial assistance from the state. That's a problem for the financially strapped county, as a minor repair could cost $250,000 and if a total replacement is needed, that could run as high as $2 million.
"I don't have the money to replace that bridge in my budget," Morgan said, adding that the bridge will likely be moved up on the county's priority list given the latest inspection and could be funded through the next SPLOST or else funds will have to be appropriated in next year's budget. Repairs could take from six months to two years, depending on what's involved.
Morgan said she doesn't believe the DOT intentionally overlooked the safety hazard, noting that inspectors were extremely busy in the days following the flood. The DOT did not send a dive team down initially, and there was so much debris it's unlikely anyone could have gotten a clear view if they had, she said.
"About 8,000 to 9,000 cars passed over the bridge a day before we reduced the weight, but compare that to 1 million cars going over some bridges in the Atlanta area," she said. "The DOT had so many big issues. This one just got a quick look."
But Raynor said if the DOT made the error, they should pay, and she hopes the repairs will be done soon.
"I don't want my neighbors' houses to burn down," she said.