HOUSTON—Take a drive across the Yale Street Bridge and you might notice the newly restored baluster railings and the globe street lights. But you might also notice it’s a bumpy ride.
Walk down the banks of White Oak Bayou under the bridge just south of Interstate 10 and you’ll see how the bridge is showing its age. Cracks and gaps split the concrete around sections of exposed steel bars. Stroll over to the north side of the bridge and you’ll find the plaque revealing its age: The Yale Street Bridge was built in 1931.
“It’s an old one,” said Jeff Jackson, a neighborhood activist who’s something of an amateur expert on the bridge.
Now this long-neglected octogenarian seems finally on its way to reconstruction, thanks to an ongoing controversy over a new Walmart under construction just south of Houston’s Heights. After critics raised questions about the aging bridge, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has fast-tracked funding—probably more than $2 million, city officials say—to help rebuild what critics deride as “the worst bridge in Texas.”
Yale Street has long been one of the main arteries leading out of the Heights, running parallel to Heights Boulevard. Even drivers who don’t travel on it daily have learned that a strategically positioned underpass makes it an easy route to avoid slow-moving trains blocking traffic.
But when neighborhood opponents hoping to shoot down the Heights Walmart project went looking for ammunition, they looked just down the block and noticed the crumbling bridge standing directly between the new supercenter and Interstate 10. Exploring the banks of the bayou, Jackson said, they found long-hidden load-limit signs indicating the bridge wasn’t built to handle modern 18-wheel traffic.
“We started raising a fuss,” Jackson said.
TxDOT inspected the bridge and dramatically reduced its load rating, effectively deciding it should be closed to large trucks. Passenger vehicles and small trucks weren’t affected, but the City of Houston banned all commercial truck traffic, including semi-tractor trailers, large panel vans, delivery trucks and buses. Even the Houston Fire Department was advised to reroute vehicles around the bridge.
“The bridge is safe to drive across,” said Ellen Cohen, the district city councilmember representing the area. “That’s been decided. But they did change the weight-load amounts. And that’s one of the things I have to give the credit to the neighborhood, too.
Since then, HPD Truck Enforcement Unit officers have regularly staked out the bridge and ticketed violators, but overweight trucks routinely barrel over its bumpy lanes. City officials said inspectors have been checking the bridge once a month.
Meanwhile, truck traffic diverting over to the parallel bridge has prompted complaints from neighborhood leaders.
“Both Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street have experienced serious increases in heavy truck traffic, including 18-wheelers, and speeding commuter traffic, shifting from Yale Street, disrupting neighborhood life and posing a safety hazard to pedestrians and cyclists,” said a letter to the mayor’s office signed by presidents of a half-dozen civic groups. “Heights Boulevard, which is known for its mature tree canopy, is in jeopardy every day as these heavy trucks regularly skirt ordinances and misuse the roadway as a major thoroughfare.”
TxDOT has declared the Yale bridge “functionally obsolete” and, bowing to a request from the City of Houston, agreed to provide what it calls “out-of-cycle funding.” But the contracts won’t be written until 2016.
“Of all Texas urban bridges, that carry the amount of traffic that this one does, this is, by far, the worst bridge in Texas,” Jackson said. “So what that means, under the TxDOT regulations that are currently available on line, is that this bridge needs to be significantly rehabilitated, or replaced, within two years.”
But under the current fast-tracked plan, the reconstruction won’t begin until the Yale Street Bridge is 85 years old.