Bridge closed to large vehicles; city scrambles
Quick responses obviously are crucial to the Tonganoxie City Fire Department.
But firefighters and others in Tonganoxie are concerned they are losing precious seconds because a bridge on Pleasant Street recently was deemed off-limits for large vehicles -- including fire trucks and ambulances.
"Our average response time now is about four and a half minutes," said Fire Chief Dave Bennett. "Now it will take about seven minutes. In seven minutes, a lot can happen in a fire or a medical call."
And it's not just the fire trucks.
"No garbage trucks, no fire trucks, no school buses," City Administrator Mike Yanez said. "It's a weak link in a very significant roadway in the city. We cannot deny the reality that that bridge needs to be replaced."
Kansas Department of Transportation officials agree, and they've moved the bridge on Pleasant Street up on its list of projects. But until it's fixed, the city is trying to determine how to work around the problem -- perhaps by constructing a temporary emergency route on a gravel road or by building a satellite fire station elsewhere in town.
Of particular concern, the fire chief said, is Tonganoxie Nursing Center. Firefighters had used the bridge at least seven times a week to respond to emergency calls. The recent 5-ton weight limit had forced the chief to find a new route to the center, which has added several minutes to response time.
The new weight limit has forced the fire chief to change the emergency route from heading south on Pleasant to Washington, to heading south on either Church Street or U.S. Highway 24-40 to reach Washington.
The lightest emergency vehicle in the fire department's fleet, not counting the department's sport utility vehicle, which is not capable of fighting fires, weighs about 6.5 tons. Its largest vehicle tips the scales at 23 tons.
Bennett gave the council an example on how much extra time the new routes would take.
He said Tonganoxie resident Stan Wiles lives on a dead-end street near Sixth and Pleasant. Wiles' house is about one-fifth of a mile, or about 30 seconds, from the fire station. The new route takes the fire department to either Church Street or U.S. Highway 24-40 and adds more than two miles or about three minutes in response time, if traffic conditions are favorable, Bennett said.
City Engineer Brian Kingsley said he had asked the bridge inspector what risk the city would take if an emergency were to occur and a truck drove over the bridge.
"Is this something we can drive a fire truck over 10 times? What about the 11th time? Well, that can't be calculated," Kingsley said.
He compared the bridge to a paper clip, "You can keep bending it and bending it, but sooner or later it is going to break."
City staff could not find records of the original bridge design, but did come across records for the bridge dating back to the late 1800s.
"Even if you don't have an engineering background you can tell it's a significant problem," Kingsley said. "You can see the deterioration."
Only regular commuter traffic is on the bridge until it can be replaced.
For now, the city is looking into different ways to accommodate emergency vehicles.
At last week's city council meeting, officials kicked around some ideas: develop a temporary emergency route, a gravel road, from Fourth to Seventh Street going south on East Street; constructing a satellite fire station at the Tonganoxie Nursing Center; creating some kind of structure to reinforce the bridge; or taking funding from other projects, such as planned East Street or Fourth Street projects, to rebuild the bridge.
Tonganoxie Mayor Mike Vestal said no matter the council's decision, protecting Tonganoxie residents was its No. 1 objective.
"We want to make them our priority, even if it takes moving a project like East Street or Fourth Street. I would like to do that."