Bridging the waters at Juanita

Concrete girders slated for use in replacing the decrepit and virtually defunct Juanita Bridge arrived in Pagosa Springs Friday, and county staff say their arrival marks a milestone in a multi-year project that is nearing completion.

Archuleta County Special Projects Manager Karin Kohake said the girders’ arrival meant the installation of the new bridge should be complete by the end of June — weather permitting.

Weather played a role in the timely arrival of the girders Friday, when heavy rains turned Trujillo Road into a quagmire, thus thwarting three of the trucks from reaching the job site on schedule.

But at this point, for residents on the south side of the bridge, waiting out a few days of weather may seem inconsequential for a project that has been years in the making.

For example, the replacement of Juanita Bridge has been a perennial budget issue since 2005 and 2006, when the board of county commissioners targeted it for replacement and estimated the project would be completed by December 2006.

Despite the commissioners’ intent, however, replacement never happened, and residents on the bridge’s south side fumed because the aging structure could not safely handle the weight of school buses, fire trucks and other heavy emergency services vehicles.

During the following year’s budget cycle, replacing Juanita Bridge appeared again as a priority, and the replacement was slated for fall 2007. But again, despite a report from the Colorado Department of Transportation, the project faltered.

In March 2007, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) released an assessment of key bridges in Archuleta County. In the report, various county bridges were scored on a scale of zero to 100 —100 being the high score and a score of 50 or less meaning the bridge should be replaced. In the study, Juanita Bridge earned an abysmal 37.5 points, and was shortlisted, again, for replacement.

However, less than 30 days after the board of county commissioners heard the CDOT report, county finances had gone Chernobyl, with reserves and cash-on-hand vaporized.

Soon thereafter, the county sought, and rapidly exhausted, a $500,000 line of credit. Next came program, staff and project cuts — including putting the Juanita Bridge project on the back burner, indefinitely.

Ultimately, the county survived 2007 without going bankrupt, and by the summer of 2008, the board found itself able to judiciously select a handful of capital improvement projects — among them Juanita Bridge.

According to Kohake, the bridge will cost about $1.43 million, with $285,439 from the county’s Road Capital Improvement Fund. The remainder comes from CDOT grants.

Once complete, school buses, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles will be able to use the bridge, and the crossing will reestablish a link from the southern portion of Archuleta County to New Mexico.

Photo courtesy Archuleta County
New concrete girders span the San Juan River as crews continue work on the Juanita Bridge project. Although years in the making, recent events indicate the project is nearing completion, and — weather permitting — should be finished by the end of June.