The state Highway and Transportation Department has said that the Broadway Bridge has deteriorated to the point that it should be replaced by a new bridge, at an estimated cost of $45 million. Some people have asked what it would cost merely to repair the old bridge to an acceptable standard. No such estimate is available.
"This bridge is soon to be 90 years old," Randy Ort, a spokesman for the highway department, said. "You reasonably expect a bridge to last 50 years." To simply do repairs would be to ask the bridge to last 140 years, he said.
"Our engineers don't feel that's the best option," Ort said. "We have to use their professional judgment."
A Sept. 8, 2009, memo from Tony Sullivan, a highway department maintenance engineer, to Emanuel Banks, assistant chief engineer for operations, sums up the situation from Sullivan's viewpoint:
"The Broadway Bridge was constructed with concrete girder approaches and concrete arch main spans in 1923. Two concrete arch spans over the main river channel were removed and replaced with a steel arch span in 1974 [to accommodate barge traffic on the Arkansas River].
"The estimated replacement cost of this structure is $26 million [sic]. Maintenance cost on this bridge over the last 5 years has been $384,000.
"This bridge has become impractical for maintenance forces to repair due to the large amount of deteriorating concrete in the deck, sidewalk, superstructure and substructure. Rusting of the main reinforcing steel in most all members of the concrete structure is causing wide spread cracks and delamination [concrete falling off] ...
"This bridge is structurally deficient ... The deck, superstructure and substructure are rated poor. It is recommended that this bridge be programmed for rehabilitation or replacement based on the current structural condition and high cost of maintenance."
Ort said Sullivan had gotten the "$26 million" figure from a memo sent in 2005 by another highway department engineer. That estimate has been affected by inflation, he said, and furthermore that estimate was based on replacement of the old bridge with a bridge just like it. The bridge that is now proposed would be much wider than the old bridge — 74 feet to 59 feet — and would have to meet new structural standards that weren't around when the old bridge was built.
Ort emphasized that the bridge is not unsafe for the way it's being used now. "If it were unsafe, we'd close it."
Still, $45 million sounds like a lot of money at a time when money's tight. (The federal government would pay 80 percent of the cost of a new bridge, the state 20 percent.) Jim von Tungeln of Little Rock, an urban planner, said he'd like to see the highway department hire an outside consultant to advise on whether a new bridge is needed. Ort was cool to the idea. "It's our bridge, and our responsibility," he said. The bridge is part of Highway 70.
Some people would be willing to spend even more than $45 million. June Freeman, director of the "art of architecture" lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service, has been advocating for an "iconic" new bridge at Little Rock for years, something on the order of a showy new bridge being built on the Trinity River at Dallas. She says there's a groundswell of interest by local officials and others.
One of those interested is County Judge Buddy Villines. The Pulaski County Courthouse sits at the southern foot of the Broadway bridge. The highway department does not yet have a design for the proposed new bridge, nor even hired a designer. Villines said he hoped the final design would have eye appeal, as well as being functional. "Form really is important in an urban setting," Villines said. "It helps create a place where people want to be."
A showpiece bridge presumably would require more money than the $45 million the highway department has proposed. The difference would have to be raised from other sources, private and/or pubic.