What motorists see these days when they drive through Avon and Livernois roads – one of the most-used intersections in Rochester Hills – are barrels and flags and warning signs. What they remember are the traffic delays.
In the morning, around lunchtime and just as the workday is ending, cars crawl in all four directions as drivers watch the lights turn green and red and green and red and green again.
But what these motorists don't see is what's underneath Avon and Livernois at the spots where they cross over the Clinton River. The bridges are cracking and deteriorating around a bridge design that officials admit was a "quick and easy" fix long ago.
This week, Oakland County road managers described what's causing the decay and what's being done to fix it. They did this while trying to prepare the city for the real possibility that the situation at that intersection may get worse before it gets better.
Underneath the asphalt
When the Road Commission for Oakland County inspected the Avon and Livernois bridges last month, it found advanced deterioration that forced it to make some unpopular but necessary changes. It reduced the weight limits on both bridges. Then it shifted the traffic, closing all but one lane in each direction of the intersection.
The deterioration is happening underneath both bridges, said Tom Blust, director of engineering for the road commission.
Blust described what motorists driving over the bridges can't see below them: side-by-side concrete box beams that rust when salt and water reach them through cracks in the asphalt on the surface. The beams have several torn or eroded steel strands that make them weak, he said.
"Back in the old days, this was a quick and easy way to do it. It was cheap," he said.
The Avon Bridge was built in 1963 and widened in 1972.
During the February inspections, both bridges were rated 17 -21 points on a scale of 100, Blust said. That rating caused the road commission to immediately enforce the weight restrictions and shift the traffic on Livernois. Right now, nothing weighing 14 tons or more is allowed on the Avon Bridge. On the Livernois Bridge, nothing weighing 21 tons or more is allowed.
A matter of safety
The decaying of the steel box beams is similar to the problems county road engineers found under the Silverbell Bridge in Orion Township last month. They closed that bridge almost immediately after inspecting it.
Road Commission Chairman Eric Wilson said he would not hesitate to order the closing of either Rochester Hills bridge if a future inspection finds it unsafe. "Safety is our main concern," Wilson said. "I know it's an inconvenience; I know it's a crisis. But we're not going to have a bridge collapse with somebody on it.
"We're not afraid to shut a bridge down."
Wilson spoke to Rochester Hills City Council on Monday night. Council members questioned the precision of the inspections.
"How conservative are you being?" council member Nathan Klomp asked Wilson, wondering aloud the thoughts of many whose cars sit on the Avon Bridge while waiting to go through the intersection.
Wilson responded with sincerity. "It's not going to cave in, but it's going downhill fast," he said.
Who is listening?
City and county leaders have called the intersection critical and vital; what's happening there, they have said, .
"It separates our fire department from our hospital; our university from our college," Mayor Bryan Barnett said. "We have been working at a fever pitch with anyone who will listen to us."
Wilson acknowledged the importance. "We know it's important to the city, we know it's important to the area," he said. "We're here to get the job done. I have a lot of friends who live in this area. I have business in this city. We'll find a way to make this done."
City engineer Paul Davis said this was a primary concern of the city. "This is foremost on the mayor's agenda," Davis said.
Who else is affected?
Anticipating traffic delays, school district officials were prepared to change bus routes after the lanes were closed.
Debbi Hartman, community relations manager, said the traffic has not been as bad as anticipated during peak school bus route times and only one route has had to be reworked since the lane closures.
At the Rochester Hills Fire Department, fire chief Ron Crowell called the bridges a "major concern."
The department recently redrew its response areas so that trucks can avoid both bridges if needed.
"If it's not an emergency, we're not going to drive our fire trucks over the bridges," Crowell said. "My hope is that if we can avoid it, we can help prolong the life of the bridges."
There is likely no immediate fix.
The Avon Bridge is scheduled to be replaced in 2013 with money from the federally funded Local Bridge Program. The Livernois Bridge has not yet been scheduled to be replaced.
Each year a pool of money becomes available to cities and counties through the federal program; a committee decides which bridges are most in need of funding. The Livernois Bridge will be competing this year with other bridges in Oakland County, as well as those in Wayne, Macomb and St. Clair counties, said Craig Bryson, spokesman for the road commission.
Bryson said it is likely only five bridges from that four-county region will be approved. If the Livernois Bridge is one of them, it will be on the schedule for 2014.
On Monday, city leaders discussed the idea of funding the reconstruction earlier, using city money that will be reimbursed by the federal program. They will likely debate this at their next meeting March 21.
Even if they go ahead with that plan, city engineer Davis said it's not as easy as just starting to rebuild a bridge. There are designs and surveys and other considerations like the placement of water mains. "From the city's standpoint, there's a lot to do," he said. "The bridge should have lasted 50 years and it didn't. We want to do it right."
If the bridge reconstruction project is moved forward to 2012, it would likely coincide with the rebuilding of Main Street through downtown Rochester.
For a look at other road projects upcoming in the city, download the PDF map that accompanies this story.