For the first week of school in Ascension Parish, a few dozen bus routes have had had to make some lengthy detours to avoid a handful of bridges that are either no longer able to handle heavy weight or have been closed for repairs longer than expected, local and state officials said.
School buses have been told to avoid five bridges in the Gonzales, Lake, Galvez and Brittany areas. State highway officials told local leaders shortly before the school year began that the bridges were not rated to handle the heaviest vehicles, school and parish officials said.
A sixth bridge on Manchac Acres Road over Muddy Creek in the Prairieville area was closed in early June for repairs and was slated to be reopened before the school year started on Aug. 10, parish officials said. But the bridge will now remain closed for up to another six months to be fully replaced after more problems cropped up, parish officials added.
Regular traffic is safe on the five other bridges, but heavier vehicles aren't, according to a DOTD listing. And they've been labeled that way for years, some as early as 2003.
But school officials said their drivers didn't realize the weight limitations applied to buses until a recent state notice shortly before the school year began. The weight restriction signs typically depict 18-wheelers and delivery trucks, not buses.
"So, we've been going over them for years and not knowing it," said Chad Lynch, Ascension schools director of operations.
Some of the bridges are maintained by the state, and some are maintained by the parish.
Lynch said parents were notified directly about the changed bus routes and just one complaint has emerged so far. But the changes have meant detours of varying lengths — some not too much different and others significantly longer.
Each of the five bridges identified by DOTD affected an average of seven bus routes, Lynch said. The closed Manchac Acres bridge has affected 14 routes, though most of those changes weren't significant.
The bridge problems have come to light in recent weeks in Parish Council committee meetings, where members have also aired complaints about school carpool traffic on narrow parish roads.
Council members also have learned about the traffic caused by the ongoing closure of the intersection of La. 930 at Henry Road in Prairieville near other public schools. The parish is building a new roundabout at the busy intersection.
Parish and school officials say they are trying to have some the most critical bridges reopened to bus traffic with interim repairs and already have one reopened to buses.
The bridge problems highlight the backlog of road maintenance in Ascension, Louisiana's second fastest growing parish between 2010 and 2020.
In 2019, a parish government consultant projected the parish had $1.25 billion in road capacity needs over the next 20 years, but only had the funds to pay for a third of that expense. State government also has billions of dollars in road backlogs.
Like many low-lying parishes, Ascension is crisscrossed with bayous, canals, drainage laterals and other waterways, so it is littered with bridges. In all, the state and parish government are responsible for roughly 270 public bridges.
The parish is preparing a study of its 60 local bridges to check their condition and see if any others need repairs or load restrictions. An earlier study of off-system bridges -- local bridges that can get federal and state money -- identified three with problems, including one at Muddy Creek Road that has since been repaired.
Despite the backlog, state highway officials and parish government have been busy in recent years upgrading or replacing old bridges.
The state has been working on a $10 million revamp underway of the Bayou Manchac and Bayou Francois bridges at Airline Highway for nearly two years. The parish has also repaired or replaced some local parish bridges, including East Lanoux Road near Gonzales and River Oaks Road in Geismar.
On Tuesday, Joey Tureau, Ascension Parish's chief engineer, said the newly weight-limited bridge at South Purpera Avenue, just south of Pecan Grove Primary School in Gonzales, had recently been repaired. An engineer has resurveyed it since the DOTD notice on load restrictions.
"We asked him jump on it quick and he did, and I have informed Chad Lynch of the School Board that he can now put school buses on it," Tureau said.
But, the other weight-limited bridges are at KC Road over Bayou Narcisse, La. 431 over drainages just north of Lake Villar, La. 933 over Henderson Bayou, and La. 941 over Interstate 10. They're unavailable to buses or heavy trucks, though lighter traffic can pass.
Lynch said the La. 431 weight limits just north of Lakeside Primary School in northeastern Ascension have presented one of the toughest challenges.
Lakeside buses are being routed in the other direction past Norwood Road -- a potential nearby alternative route -- because using that road would send those buses into already congested traffic for another primary school, he said.
DOTD officials said the La. 431 and La. 933 bridges are slated to be replaced but don't have a date for a construction bid openings because of a lack of funding. A federal database says the La. 933 bridge ranks just above being "structurally deficient."
"DOTD staff is currently looking at La. 431 to determine if there is a fix that can either eliminate or raise the load posting," officials said in a statement.
As far as the bridge at Manchac Acres, parish officials learned recently that the old, small bridge needed more repairs after a first round of fixes from a washout. They also determined it was too small and was blocking drainage for Muddy Creek, a key outlet to Bayou Manchac.
Under emergency orders, parish officials are planning to completely replace the bridge north of La. 42 with large culverts and make it a better drainage outlet.