Final preparations are being made before the Broadway Bridge between Little Rock and North Little Rock closes Wednesday. It will then be demolished, with a new bridge built in its place, hopefully opening within six months. But in the meantime, officials fear having one less span across the Arkansas River will lead to traffic gridlock.
The plan is to shut down the Broadway Bridge after rush hour Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.
"Law enforcement will halt traffic and they’ll pull barricades across the bridge, and then it will close for the last time in its 93 year history; pretty significant," says Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Danny Straessle. Then at 10:45, a closing ceremony will be held.
"This bridge, when it was first opened to traffic back in 1923, was commissioned to the memory of those who had fought in the World War, and of course at that time the World War was the first World War. So we will decommission this as that commemoration and have a little ceremony for that."
Officials with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Arkansas Army National Guard will take part. Immediately afterward, Strassle says the contractor will begin removing several inches of asphalt. As it contains oil, the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t want any going into the river.
October 1 is when workers are to begin the key part of the demolition.
"They will work a couple of weeks and get themselves into a position where they will use explosives to bring down the arch that’s there, the metal arch that was put there in the ‘70s for the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System," Straessle says. "They will place charges in strategic areas of that arch and they’ll set those off. It’s not likely to be a large explosion like you see in the movies or anything, but rather it’s going to be very loud, number one because it echoes here in downtown, but also the steel falling into the water is going to make a lot of noise."
Pneumatic devices will then be used to break up the concrete arches coming out of the Arkansas River.
Workers will eventually position parts of the new bridge which have been under construction for much of the year along the North Little Rock bank of the river.
"They think that by sometime in November, these arches that you see being put together over here, they’ll float those barges in with the arches on them," Straessle says. "They’ll just lower those arches into place. It’s really going to be something to see. It’s going to take a while. It’s not like you’re going to be able to come out on a Saturday and watch it. It will take a considerable amount of time.”
Making the process more challenging is that November is typically a time when the river has high water levels. He says the Corps will use the dam upriver to try and control the rivers’ flow as best it can. Once the arches are in place, the rest of the structure will be built.
The contractor Massman Construction Company is working toward opening the new bridge by March.
Construction will continue 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Sundays and Holidays, Straessle says.
"They’ve got a schedule to meet. If they finish early, they’re going to get about $80,000 a day up to a certain number of days. If they go over the 180 days and don’t have the bridge open to traffic, then they start getting assessed a penalty of $80,000 a day. So it’s an incentive-disincentive clause in the contract, and this is where the contractor can really make their money on a project like this.”
But local leaders are worried about the impact on traffic once the Broadway Bridge is shut down.
"When you’ve got 26,000 cars going across a bridge every day, that’ s a lot to have to go somewhere else," says North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith. "We’re afraid that at least half of them are going to try to come over the Main Street Bridge. So if that happens, then it’s going to be gridlock in downtown Little Rock, which will create backups in the morning here. So it’s going to be pretty bad, something none of us are used to.”
The key, Smith says, is for drivers who normally use the Broadway Bridge to decide before Wednesday how they will get where they need to go.
"Our number one concern is to make sure that everyone is very well aware of the bridge closing down so that they can start working out alternate routes and alternate times and carpooling and all the things that people do in big cities because we're getting ready to have a traffic issue that we've never experienced here before," Smith said.
He has been meeting with North Little Rock Police and traffic officials for two years to prepare. The city has created a Broadway Bridge Survival Guide on its website, which includes information, as well as live video feeds from stationary traffic cameras. Extra officers will be on duty Wednesday, Smith says, and wreckers will be on standby. The timing of traffic lights has been modified and can be further adjusted to help traffic flow.