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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The overall condition of the columns supporting a downtown Louisville exit ramp that was briefly closed last month had worsened in recent years, and inspectors lowered the ramp's overall rating, state records show.
But those reports – including the most recent, June 19, 2012 -- don't mention the damaged column that prompted the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to shut down the ramp Dec. 20 and order emergency repairs.
Instead, a passing driver noticed the pillar and called state officials.
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said it's "concerning that it wasn't one of our own engineers who recognized the deterioration at this degree."
At the same time, Wolfe defended the state's inspection process and said the lack of information about the column in the reports doesn't indicate a flaw in the system.
"I don't know how quickly something like this develops," Wolfe said, noting that more than 18 months had passed since the previous inspection. "But I think our record on inspections is a good record – and demonstrably so. The Cabinet puts a lot of emphasis and resources into it."
Andy Barber, the state's manager of the downtown part of the Ohio River Bridges Project, said he's not aware of past concerns about the column that will be repaired.
Kentucky officials said Monday they plan to shut down the ramp again later this month to make additional repairs to the structure linking northbound Interstate 65 to I-64 West. The ramp, which handles an estimated 149,000 vehicles a day, was closed for two days amid concerns about deteriorating concrete at the center of one of the columns.
The ramp is inspected every two years.
Cabinet inspectors noted an increasing number of columns with damaged concrete and exposed steel reinforcing bars, or "rebar," during inspection reports dating from 2006 and obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act.
In their reports, inspectors found "large spalls with rebar exposed" in eight columns in 2012, up from five in 2010. The locations of the pillars aren't given.
Barber said drivers shouldn't be alarmed by the information in the inspection reports, which are used to identify maintenance needs and didn't note any areas that needed immediate repairs, he said.
"That's tracking what's going in," he said. "It doesn't lend itself to a structural issue."
The only column specifically mentioned in the recent inspection reports is part of a pier just south of Witherspoon Street near the Louisville Extreme Park, Barber said.
In 2008, an inspector noted that the column had "vertical cracks and spalls with rebar exposed with section loss." Two different inspectors, in 2010 and in 2012, described the column as having the "worst" damage of any pillar.
Barber said there have been no repairs to that column, which has a large amount of exposed rebar. The column is one of 24 in Spaghetti Junction that engineers are reviewing in the wake of the ramp closure, he said.
So far, Barber said, crews haven't uncovered problems that warrant immediate action.
The 49-year-old ramp crosses over Witherspoon Street and an onramp to I-65 North northeast of Louisville Slugger Field. It will remain in use until at least the middle of 2015, when it is scheduled to be demolished as part of the bridges project.
In addition to temporary steel beams added on each side of the damaged column, the ramp has been narrowed slightly to keep traffic from passing directly overhead.
The work planned for later in January will require closing the ramp. Walsh Construction, which is building a new downtown bridge, will chip out concrete at the center of the column and add new material; replace the damaged rebar; and wrap the column in new concrete.
The column is just one part of the ramp. The ratings for two of the ramp's three main structural elements also declined in recent years, the inspection reports show:
The deck, which includes the roadway and its surface, has been rated "poor" since at least 2006.
The weight-bearing superstructure that holds up the deck was ranked "satisfactory" in 2012 and 2010; it was rated "good" in 2008.
The substructure, which includes the piers and columns, was in "fair" condition in 2012 and 2010, down from a "satisfactory" rating in 2008.
Barber said public safety is the state's "paramount" concern in repairing the column.
"We erred on the side of safety when we closed this ramp to get this repair. I don't know immediately that it warranted shutting down," Barber said. "But my guy made the call out there and did it, and I'm glad he did."