The Short-Attention Span 

Metro knew the Demonbreun Street bridge was deteriorating for years and still failed to plan for its replacement

Metro knew the Demonbreun Street bridge was deteriorating for years and still failed to plan for its replacement

Once you've put netting under a depression-era bridge to catch falling chunks of concrete, how long should it take to replace that structure?

Eight years, best case, if you're Metro government.

Yes, in a city known for its mind-numbingly slow bridge construction projects—and under a bridge-happy mayor known for his micromanagement—once a suspended stretch of road is pronounced on its last legs, you "hope to get six more months out of it," according to a disturbingly high-ranking city official.

That's why today, the Demonbreun Street bridge, a vital artery into and out of downtown Nashville, is closed. And it won't be coming back anytime soon, even though the city had ample warning of its impending demise.

Indeed, the 74-year-old concrete-and- steel structure has been steadily deteriorating, rusting, rumbling and crumbling one piece at a time, and Metro officials have been patching its potholes instead of planning for its replacement.

A short history lesson is warranted: In 2002, in response to complaints of debris raining on cars below the bridge, Metro Public Works Department officials halved its weight limit to 10,000 pounds, meaning large trucks and all buses were banned from the span. That move rendered MTA's 4-year-old Clement Landport—price tag $6.2 million—an obsolete bus stop. They also reduced to two the number of lanes on the bridge, which at its closing was carrying 13,000 vehicles a day.

Not good enough. Last month, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) inspectors said the bridge was unsafe and had to close. That same day, July 6, at 6:55 p.m., the city abruptly and unceremoniously shut down the bridge.

But it's not like Metro officials couldn't see this coming. In 1997, according to a Scene source who viewed the inspection reports, Gresham Smith & Partners engineers inspected the bridge and said it had five years of use left. At that time, the city was planning to replace the structure with an interstate viaduct, part of the Gateway Boulevard project, designed to connect I-40 with what was then I-65 (now I-24) on the east bank. In 1999, city officials wisely scrapped that unpopular plan.

Fast forward to 2002—five years after the five-year estimate, and well after the Gateway plan had been abandoned. Gresham Smith returned and said the bridge was—surprise!—in sorry shape. The firm presented several life-prolonging options and said, regardless of Metro's chosen remedy, the city must start planning right away to replace the expanse. That's when Metro reduced the weight limit, restriped the road and began making regular surface and structural repairs to the bridge. The city also asked TDOT to put the bridge on the state's annual inspection list. These were stopgap measures, public works officials readily admit, simply designed to squeeze a little more life out of the failing bridge.

Skip ahead to June 2003. A TDOT inspection concluded that the bridge was in "poor condition." By fall 2002 Metro was commissioning Gresham Smith to conduct monthly bridge inspections. Things didn't look good, and officials started worrying that TDOT would shut down the bridge after the July 2004 state inspection. The mayor's office began preparing downtown business leaders for a closure.

But by mid-June of this year, the folks over at public works were breathing a sigh of relief. "We've had three different structural engineers look at it, and we feel good about the safety," engineering director Mark Macy said in a newspaper report.

Guess he spoke too soon. A few weeks later, the bridge was closed.

So how did we get to this point? That's what at-large Metro Council member David Briley wants to know. He requested copies of the Demonbreun Street bridge inspection reports from public works and was told by a Metro attorney that those documents were confidential under federal law. An informal inquiry by the Scene confirmed Metro's position, complete with legal citations and confusing case law, all of which might be challenged successfully in court, according to several attorneys who spoke to the Scene.

At press time, however, TDOT deputy general counsel John Reinbold told the Scene that, no, these records aren't confidential and that anyone who makes a formal request can obtain them. Reinbold says that the Federal Highway Administration issued a memo last year stating that they interpreted the law to mean the records were open. Tom Cross, the Metro attorney who'd said the records were confidential, says he didn't get the memo.

Regardless, it doesn't look good for the city to be unnecessarily withholding information that may cast the decisions of city officials in a negative light. "I don't think they're intentionally trying to hide anything," says Briley, who was ultimately allowed to review the reports as a member of council. "But interpreting the law in such a secretive, restrictive way doesn't promote good government; it promotes government ineptitude."

Speaking of ineptitude, by most accounts, the city made no plan to replace the bridge once the original interstate connector plan fell apart in 1999. Between then and 2002, public works' Macy reports, "Inspections were going on, the Gateway Boulevard was going on, continued maintenance was going on, the Gulch was being developed." An advance planning report was completed March 21, 2000, but no one was applying for federal money for a new bridge, Macy says. He says federal funding restrictions required Metro to wait four years, or until 2003, before reapplying for money.

Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips says there's been no delay in span planning. "We did start right away," he says. "We've been working on replacing the bridge all along. But because there had been an earlier plan to replace the bridge, it was basically starting over.... We were monitoring its condition while we worked on the bureaucratic process as required by the federal funding."

Public works director Billy Lynch tells it a bit differently. "We started last year to plan to replace the bridge, and we hoped we could keep it open for up to two more years," he says. "In February [of this year], we knew the life of the bridge was becoming short. In early March, we met with the federal government, TDOT and Metro to get this process started.... In [May] we sent a letter to TDOT asking for the funds."

So, essentially, there was a four-year gap between spring 2000 and spring 2004 during which Metro put lipstick on the pig in the form of pothole and underbelly repairs. And yet no one effectively got the ball rolling on a replacement bridge until this year. Lynch says it's been a top priority since he took the director's post in February, but that's cold comfort, considering the structure's been on its deathbed for years.

Maybe love can build a bridge, but bureaucrats sure can't. Part of the problem was poor planning the first time around, designing an interstate connector that would bisect the urban loop—and the apparent mandatory funding delay caused by that bridge abortion. Another part of the problem was a lack of foresight this time around, with public works engineers desperately filling potholes on a structure that was literally crumbling beneath them. And finally, Metro's potentially mistaken refusal to release bridge inspection reports led to a disturbing lack of transparency about the entire process.

The bottom line, Briley says, is that Nashville shouldn't be in this position. "We need to look at those reports so we can avoid getting to the place where we have to close a bridge because it's unsafe," he says. "This shouldn't have to happen again."

A group of Nashville business leaders were considering branding the Demonbreun corridor the "Music Mile." Unfortunately, for the next three years, there'll be a big gap in their melody. But at least Deputy Mayor Phillips and public works' Lynch are singing the same tune about the bridge's failure. Say both: "This wasn't a surprise."

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