Safety concerns as state adjusts weight limit to decades-old North Shore bridge

Damage to a nearly 90-year-old bridge on Oahu, and changes to who can drive on it prompted KHON2 to ask the state: Is Paumalu Bridge safe?

The bridge is located on Kamehameha Highway, near Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore.

In the last year and a half, the Department of Transportation lowered the weight restrictions because of cracks and damage to the bridge. Now the state wants to allow large trucks back on the bridge with restrictions.

After concerns and complaints from the city and the commercial trucking industry, the state is changing its mind again on who can use Paumalu Bridge. The Department of Transportation will allow vehicles that weigh up to 25 tons.

“There’s a lot of things that couldn’t go over the bridge anymore. It took a lot longer for people to get their goods to commerce,” said HDOT deputy director Ed Sniffen.

But what are the plans and how safe is the bridge?

The state said repairs were made in November 2014 after cracks were found in the columns. Last month, damage was found again, which officials believe was due to the high surf.

The weight limit on the bridge was lowered, and then on Friday, state officials said the damage was not as bad as they thought and are raising the weight limit.

“Initially, when we started looking at it after the large surf, a lot of portions of the bridge were covered under sand, so when that sand started going away, we could see what the structure actually looked like,” Sniffen explained.

The DOT is now allowing vehicles between 15 and 25 tons on the bridge one at a time. Other vehicles with that weight must wait for the others to cross first. If there’s a backup of cars on the bridge, the large vehicles must wait until traffic is moving before crossing it.

“How are you going to enforce these restrictions?” KHON2 asked.

“That’s a very good question. Right now, we’re asking everybody’s support,” Sniffen said.

Inspection crews will monitor the area and will also look under the bridge every two weeks.

The bridge was originally built in 1929. One recent government report called it structurally deficient, though Sniffen insists “the bridge is absolutely safe.”

The state will put in a precast bridge, which will last five to 10 years. They hope to have it in place by the end of May while they work on a permanent solution.

Should they have found a permanent solution back in 2014 instead of just making repairs or did they do the right thing back then?

“I think that since the turn of the century, it should have been part of their prioritized bridges to repair,” said University of Hawaii civil engineering professor Panos Prevedouros.

Prevedouros said Paumalu Bridge was not built for such heavy loads and use, and since no one will be continuously watching if drivers comply with these new restrictions, he wonders, “Sometimes we have overloaded vehicles. Are the drivers going go to behave? It’s an open question.”

The state hopes to start installing the precast bridge in May. Officials hope to do most of the work at night, but it could mean closing a lane.

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