Commentary

Wilson: Guard rails insufficient fix for aged N.C. 751 bridge

October 25, 2013 

Bob Wilson

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By the rude bridge that arches the tracks – sorry, Mr. Emerson – NCDOT plans to install guard rails, the better to keep drivers from careering off N.C. 751.

That’s the fix for one of the state’s oldest bridges, built across the N.C. Railroad tracks 83 years ago, and today a daunting passage for Orange and Durham County drivers.

As the N&O’s Bruce Siceloff reported recently, six accidents have occurred at or on the bridge since 2007, one of them fatal.

The concrete bridge was made to last, and apparently NCDOT intends to get its money’s worth. Few bridges last as long as this one.

Durham and Orange County drivers who use the N.C. 751 connector through Duke Forest cross an antiquarian bridge that’s only 18 feet wide. That’s fine if you’re driving a 1930 Ford Coupe, but a risky venture in a modern vehicle that can be almost 8 feet wide.

That leaves little room for error when another vehicle shares the bridge, as scars on the concrete safety rails attest.

Worse, a driver’s sight line is virtually nonexistent when approaching the bridge – you don’t know what’s coming from the other side, what size it is or how fast it’s moving.

Like the Almighty, NCDOT sometimes moves in mysterious ways. It has no immediate plans to replace the N.C. 751 bridge with a modern, driver-friendly structure.

But DOT engineers are clearly aware of safety issues with the bridge, and they say they want to replace it. Perversely, the bridge was built so well that although it’s rated as functionally obsolete, it’s not in danger of failure.

That means no federal aid for a replacement, which could easily carry a price tag in the millions.

Admittedly, compared to the urgent need to replace the ailing Herbert Bonner bridge that carries N.C. 12 across Oregon Inlet, the unnamed N.C. 751 bridge is small potatoes.

Unless you use it, that is. When you’re on that bridge, it’s the most important one in North Carolina.

Approaching the bridge, N.C. 751 is 20 feet wide, narrow by contemporary standards. But worse awaits drivers, for the roadway shrinks to 18 feet on the bridge. Call it the Big Squeeze, because that’s what it feels like to this driver.

And no doubt that’s how the driver of an ambulance felt when the emergency vehicle ripped off a stopped car’s side-view mirror.

Until a replacement span is built, putting metal guard rails on the existing span’s approaches and reducing the speed limit – I would argue for 35 mph – is all we’ll get.

Why a fatality had to occur before DOT decided to install guard rails and consider reducing the speed limit is one of those mysterious ways of the transportation bureaucracy. The high risk of running off the approaches was there for everyone to see.

But no amount of remediation can bring back Merrill Davis, whose SUV went off the approach a year ago, killing him in a fiery plunge onto the railroad tracks.

DOT Secretary Tony Tata should put a replacement bridge at the top of his agency’s priority list. Yes, the 751 bridge is but one of almost 13,000 in North Carolina, and all draw on a downsized DOT budget.

The 751 bridge, however, requires more than guard rails and maintenance. It requires vigilance, courage – and replacement.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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