Fatal bridge rail low
Where cyclist launched over edge, guardrail is 13 inches shorter than current safety standards.
WYDOT added an extra railing to the bridge at Horse Creek while repairs are under way. The agency said the added railing is to keep tools from falling over the edge. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Emma Breysse, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
May 22, 2013
The bridge where a cyclist careened over a guardrail and died is a foot shy of safety standards but won’t be improved for years, a state official said Tuesday.
Replacing the Snake River Bridge on U.S. Highway 89 is on a Wyoming Department of Transportation project list, District Engineer John Eddins of Rock Springs said. But the department won’t have funding for the work until at least October 2016.
The guardrail of the Snake River bridge at Horse Creek south of Jackson is 29 inches high, according to measurements taken by the deputy Teton County coroner. He recorded that height while investigating the death of Robert Verhaaren, a racer in the LOTOJA bike race in September 2012.
Verhaaren went over the rail and fell nearly 60 feet into the shallow waters of the Snake River.
To be bike and pedestrian safe, guardrails should be at least 42 inches high, said Bridge Program Coordinator Kelley Rehm of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. That puts the rail that failed to save the Mesa, Ariz., man from falling to his death more than a foot lower than recommended federal standards.
The Snake River Bridge is about 40 years old, according to Eddins’ best estimate.
“It probably did meet the guidelines that existed at the time it was built,” Eddins said. “That’s an old bridge, and it’s on our list to be replaced.”
The association of transportation officials recommends standards for highways and bridges across the country.
“However, each state decides on its own standards,” Rehm said.
Since the bridge was built, Rehm’s organization has updated its standards several times. That’s something Eddins said his department recognizes.
Replacements for at least two old bridges in Teton County, including the Snake River Bridge at Horse Creek, are planned for 2016 and 2018, Eddins said. The new bridges will meet federal recommendations and include pedestrian and bicycle pathways separate from the motor vehicle travel lanes, he said.
It’s the time between now and then that worries activist Tim Young, the executive director of Wyoming Pathways and a resident of Wilson.
“That bridge has been on [WYDOT’s] list for years, to their credit,” Young said. “It’s overdue and it’s necessary. The thing is, there’ll be a lot of cyclists over that bridge before the project is done.”
Verhaaren’s death highlighted the danger of not upgrading the outdated bridge for perhaps five more years, Young said. The Wyoming Highway Patrol’s report on the crash that killed Verhaaren show the guardrail failed to stop him.
According to witness statements included in the report, Verhaaren, 42, was riding at about 20 mph when he hit an obstacle in the road. He over-corrected after hitting the bump and collided with the bridge railing.
That pitched him off his bike and over the side. Teton County Deputy Coroner Dave Hodges determined he likely was dead the moment he hit the shallow edge of the river.
Hodges’ investigation determined the likeliest candidate for the obstacle Verhaaren hit was a patch of asphalt no more than 2 inches thick, probably spilled during a pothole repair.
“It’s not a very safe bridge, and this guy just happened to hit all the wrong circumstances,” Young said. “Maybe [they should] raise the railing in the meantime or put in a temporary one while they wait to replace the whole thing given how many cyclists use that bridge.”
Eddins didn’t think that would happen. No changes to the railing are contemplated before the full replacement project, he said.
WYDOT crews currently are working on the bridge, but plan to make repairs to the damaged road surface only.