COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As morning commuters passed overhead, Maxwell Faulkner donned his scuba gear and slipped into Blacklick Creek to check underwater sections of an East Side bridge for any signs of deterioration.
Across town, at about the same time, David Dibling, assistant Franklin County bridge engineer, was climbing through an access door more than 100 feet above Lane Avenue on the Ohio State University campus to inspect cables supporting the bridge that carries traffic and pedestrians over the Olentangy River.
It's the midyear point for the Franklin County Engineer's office's annual bridge-inspection program. On any given day, people such as Faulkner and Dibling are hard at work down low and up high to ensure that structures around the county are safe for vehicles and people.
County Engineer Cornell R. Robertson's office keeps regular tabs on 366 bridges and culverts, including 357 that it's responsible for maintaining and nine others owned by railroads. State law requires annual inspections of bridges stretching 10 feet (3.06 meters) or more, with federal requirements of biennial checks on those spanning at least 20 feet (6.1 meters).
Most of the bridges (344) maintained by the county engineer have been rated in fair or better condition. None are currently rated in "critical," ''imminent failure" or "failed" conditions.
That said, more than 100 bridges in the county were built 75 or more years ago, and 48 are more than 100 years old. A goal of the inspections is to catch problems early so that existing bridges can be maintained.
"Instead of just looking for innovative ways to replace these structures, let's look for innovative ways to maintain these structures so that we don't have to replace them," said Ed Herrick, county bridge engineer. "It costs a heck of a lot more money, and it's a lot more inconvenient when we have to replace a structure."
From March through December, passersby might spot employees from the engineer's office and firms hired for the inspections checking pillars, girders, decks and other parts of bridges. Often, the inspections can be conducted without special equipment, though sometimes, scuba gear and cranes are involved.
Faulkner was part of a crew from Greenman-Pedersen Inc., a New York-based firm with offices in Dublin, that handled the inspection of the bridge over Blacklick Creek on Reynoldsburg-New Albany Road. More than 12,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, according to an average daily trip traffic count study conducted in 2017 by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
Funding has been secured for improvements to the busy East Broad Street intersection just north of the bridge. Herrick wanted to get a handle on the condition of the bridge now, in case there's the potential for upgrades on the span in coming years.
Faulkner walked part of the creek, with water rising to his knees at some points and deeper at others, probing with a pole as he went. There were sections of water 8 feet deep or more, requiring full scuba gear and Faulkner feeling for cracks and degradation in the muddy water.
"We're looking for voids, cracks, concrete missing, undermining," said Willy Grimmke, crew leader for the day's inspection. "Driving across (the bridge), you can't tell. That's why we get down and do a hands-on inspection."
Faulkner also checked for scouring — holes caused by swift-moving water in certain spots that can lead to structural issues and damage bridge footings.
But on this day, Faulkner said he found: "No undermining; the abutment looks great."
Back at Ohio State, a faulty light atop the Lane Avenue bridge over the Olentangy required attention. Since the crane was going to be onsite anyway, the engineer's office opted to complete an inspection at the same time.
It's a busy thoroughfare, especially on OSU home football game days. An estimated 24,600-plus vehicles cross the span on an average day.
High above the street on the side of the two mid-bridge concrete towers are small access doors. Dibling rode the crane and climbed through to check the place where the bridge cables attach to the large metal beam.
He's been inside the structures several times since it was built more than 15 years ago, checking for movement in the bolts, leaks, rust and cracks.
"We didn't see any," he said after completing an inspection of the north tower. "It looks good."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com