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Deteriorating bridge: Wayne County skipped crucial inspection, 7 Investigation finds

Posted: 4:08 PM, May 10, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-10 22:52:43Z
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GROSSE ILE, Mich. (WXYZ) — Getting around metro Detroit can be tough when you live and work on an island like Grosse Ile because your lifeline to the mainland is a bridge.

The Wayne County Parkway bridge is the most-used bridge on Grosse Ile, and it’s in need of repair.

7 Investigator Heather Catallo learned that Wayne County skipped a federally mandated inspection of that bridge.

Also, the same bridge inspector whom Catallo exposed last year for allegedly falsifying bridge inspection reports was the one who was supposed to order that crucial inspection.

More than 10,000 people call Grosse Ile Township home. The township is actually a group of 12 islands, all linked by bridges. Most of them date back to the 1930s or earlier.

Alice Stanko and her husband retired to Grosse Ile because they love living on an island. But last April, the bridge that links Stanko’s neighborhood to the closest bridge to get back to the mainland was shut down.

“All of the sudden I saw a detour – bridge closed,” she said. “It’s like, ‘what?” We didn’t get any notification.”

That closure meant Alice has to drive several miles out of her way to get back to the mainland, which could be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. There are no hospitals on Grosse Ile.

“This is a big factor – minutes, seconds count, and if you’re diverted, you have to go around in order to get off the bridge to go to the local hospital,” she added.

It’s been more than a year, but the Park Lane Bridge is still closed. It’s also not the only bridge under scrutiny on the island.

If the East River Rd. Bridge over the N. Hickory Canal at Meso Island fails, 1,000 residents will be stranded-- out of reach of emergency services and the mainland. It’s currently rated in serious condition.

Wayne County’s Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge, often called the “free bridge,” is the main crossing used by 75 percent of the island. Each day, 16,700 cars, trucks and school buses cross it into Trenton. But is it safe?

“We’re concerned about the Wayne County bridge because it’s an essential lifeline for residents and businesses on the island,” Greg Karmazin said. He’s with the Grosse Ile Civic Association.

Karmazin has been demanding answers from state and county government about whether enough inspections have been done on the bridge. Federal standards call for underwater inspections of bridges like this every five years.

“How important is the underwater inspection?” Catallo asked.

“Oh, it’s critically important. The support piers hold up the entire bridge. And problems with support piers and their foundations are one of the leading causes of bridge failures in the country,” Karmazin said.

In a 2007 underwater inspection, engineers wanted even more inspections, and wrote this: “Due to the age and amount of deficiencies, it is recommended that this bridge be re-inspected every 36 months.”

But the county didn’t do another underwater inspection for 10 years. Karmazin and other Grosse Ile residents want to know why.

“We’d all like to see what the condition of the bridge is, and what their plans are for repairing it,” Karmazin said. “We need to be confident that the bridge is going to be properly maintained and repaired.”

The 7 Investigators have obtained the inspection reports that residents have been asking for.

One name on the reports stood out: Timothy Drakeford is listed as the bridge inspector on past reports.

Last year, we showed you how Wayne County fired Drakeford for “falsifying records” and “neglect of duty.”

On Drakeford’s 2013 and 2015 inspections, the description of the bridge’s condition looks exactly the same from year to year. The ex-inspector even told the 7 Investigators in 2018 that he was told by his supervisors to “copy and paste” his inspection sheets.

County officials say Drakeford would have been responsible for scheduling the missing underwater inspections on the Parkway bridge.

“Who would imagine that a bridge inspector would falsify records. As soon as we were aware, we took action swiftly. And not only action to resolve that situation, but then look at our internal processes and say, what can we implement from an oversight reporting structure standpoint to make sure that if we ever find ourselves in that position that there’s enough oversight to prevent that from happening,” said Wayne County Director of Communications Jim Martinez.

“What we’ve put in place is a process of documentation and increased communication,” Wayne County Director of Engineering Michael Van Antwerp said.

Drakeford was fired long before Van Antwerp took over the department, but he says all of the bridges at risk have been re-inspected and construction improvements are coming this fall to the Parkway bridge.

“We’re going to improve the foundation of the bridge, how the piers connect to the channel,” he added.

In the meantime, Van Antwerp said the county is doing regular monitoring of the piers and monthly inspections.

“Is the bridge safe?” Catallo asked.

“The bridge is safe. We’ve load-tested it. That’s why we posted it at 26 tons. If it wasn’t safe, we’d close it,” he replied.

Wayne County also plans to start working on those smaller bridges on the island that could strand residents if they fail. Those plans can be found here and the inspection reports are here .

As for the former bridge inspector Timothy Drakeford, he told us has no comment about his past work for the county, but he is still under investigation by the Wayne County Prosecutor.

The 7 Investigators reached out to the Federal Highway Administration to see what consequences the county could face for missing an underwater bridge inspection. An FHWA official told us this:

If a state highway bridge inspection program receives a noncompliant rating, the state risks losing the flexibility they have with federal highway funds. In order to avoid this, FHWA works with the state (for example, Michigan DOT, with Wayne County) by having the state either address the issues in 45 days or prepare a Plan of Corrective Action (PCA) to remedy it. The PCA describes the process and timelines to correct the noncompliance and FHWA must approve it. Michigan DOT worked with Wayne County and has been in compliance there since 2017.

If you have a story for Heather please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.