GREEN BAY, Wis. - Months after passing a state inspection, a Green Bay bridge that carries nearly 40,000 vehicles a day has been closed indefinitely after a 400-foot-long dip in the pavement appeared Wednesday morning.
Gov. Scott Walker vowed that the Leo Frigo Memorial Bridge, which carries Interstate 43 over the Fox River on the north side of Green Bay, will be reopened. But officials Wednesday acknowledged that the have no idea how long it will take to diagnose and fix the problem.
"It could be months. It could be a year," Kim Rudat, the spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's northeast region. The closure, he said, will likely last "for quite some time."
The dip is 400 feet long and a little more than 1½ feet deep, DOT said. It crosses all four lanes of the interstate.
The closure spans from Atkinson Drive west of the river to Webster Avenue to the east. Officials warned drivers to allow extra travel time, and to avoid I-43 and other area freeways if possible to help ease congestion, but they should still expect delays on other area roads.
The problem on the Leo Frigo centers on a concrete support structure, known as Pier 22, that sits between between North Quincy Street and the Fox River on the east approach to the bridge. When Pier 22 settled it caused the road above it to sag, DOT said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
State Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said that the 8,000-foot span is not in danger of collapsing.
The bridge employs a different construction style than Minneapolis highway bridge that collapsed and killed 13 people in 2007, transportation officials said. But officials aren't going to let anyone who is not essential to their investigation on or near the span because of safety concerns.
Small "fine vertical cracks" were found during a visual inspection of the Leo Frigo in August 2012, but officials said that they constitute normal wear and tear on a bridge that opened in 1980.
On Wednesday evening, officials said it could be several days before they know how much of the span and its supporting structure will have to be repaired or replaced.
"This is something new that we haven't really dealt with before," said Dale Weber, the transporation department's lead bridge engineer for Northeastern Wisconsin. At minimum, he said, it appears Pier 22 would have to be replaced.
Officials also are far from knowing the financial impact, and how those costs would be covered.
"We very much need for this bridge to be fixed as soon as possible," Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt said. The increased flow of traffic through downtown could generate costs for city police, he said.
It's unclear whether the damage to the bridge is increasing in scope.
"There are puzzle pieces we have to put together," said transportation department regional director Will Dorsey. "We're going to get whoever we need to get involved in this investigation."
A number of sources, including the Federal Highway Administration, have offered to help, he said.
The DOT maintains the Leo Frigo bridge and is required to undergo what is termed a "routine visual inspection" every two years. Websites using federal data indicate the bridge deck, superstructure and substructure were "good" to "satisfactory" in 2012.
In-depth inspections are required every six years; a document that DOT distributed to reporters Wednesday said the last in-depth inspection took place July 28, 2008. Records of that inspection were not immediately available.
Walker promised an update this afternoon, but Dorsey later cautioned that today might be too soon for the department to have much new information about the issue.
The bridge plays a significant role in commerce and transportation, and closure further challenges commuters already facing a major reconstruction of U.S. 41, a key nearby highway. The governor has made improving roads and bridges a key objective of his administration, and vowed that Leo Frigo would reopen.
"The state of Wisconsin is committed ... we will fix this bridge," Walker vowed at an afternoon press conference at DOT's offices in Ashwaubenon. Officials earlier briefed area elected officials by telephone.
The first sign of trouble was call made just before 5 a.m. Wednesday from a motorist reporting a dip in the pavement in the eastbound lanes of the road.
Green Bay police closed the highway and began detouring traffic by 5:30, Rudat said. Police Lt. Karl Ackermann of the department's Traffic Division said he had not heard of motorists expressing concerns about the road before the 4:51 a.m. call.
Work crews completed work on the bridge earlier this year as part of a nearly $17 million project to improve 3.5 miles of of Interstate 43, including the bridge. The project included resurfacing the span, replacing bridge joints, repainting steel support girders, installing traffic cameras at multiple locations near the bridge, and adding access-control gates at the ramps to get on I-43.
The span was opened as the Tower Drive Bridge, but the name was changed to Leo Frigo Memorial Bridge to honor Frigo, the former president of Frigo Cheese Corp. and the founder of Paul's Pantry in Green Bay, a food pantry for the poor. He died in 2001.
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