Boats and barges traveling the Intracoastal Waterway radio an operator in the bridge tower, who then stops traffic and slowly swings the bridge open to the east. Image courtesy of YouTube.
SARGENT, Texas (AP) Anna Carter was once a regular at Sargent Island, but after a barge struck the Sargent Swing Bridge on Farm Road 457 just before Memorial Day a year ago, she’d rather stay home.
“Ever since the barge hit, it’s subconsciously in your mind that you don’t want to go to the beach,’’ said Carter.
No one was injured, but the incident closed the bridge for the weekend, cutting off the only access point to and from the island.
“The barge hit the bridge on the south side and just crumpled it,’’ bridge operator Steve Gartman told The Facts of Brazoria County. “They couldn’t fix it until that Sunday.’’
Now, a year after that incident, the Texas Department of Transportation has proposed a replacement concrete bridge, with safety as a primary motivator.
It’s rare to see a barge collide with the bridge, Gartman said, although he has seen plenty in his 17 years as an operator.
“Once a man stopped and asked how far it was to Galveston,’’ Gartman said. “I told him it was still about 40 miles, and he gunned his engine and drove across the bridge. I heard a splash.’’
The proposed $28.7 million “corkscrew bridge’’ would span 225 ft. (68.5 m) and clear 73 ft. (22 m) across the Intracoastal Waterway. It would be two lanes and leave room on the sides for pedestrians and cyclists.
“It’s a standard concrete bridge with unique corkscrew approaches,’’ highway department spokesman Andrew Carlson said. “You start out on the ground and go in a complete circle to get to the top of the bridge, and then in another complete circle to get to the bottom.
“We have a limited right-of-way, and there’s not enough room on the island to build a standard bridge with straight approaches. We want to be respectful of the environment.’’
It’s a far cry from the current swing bridge — the last of its kind in Texas — which extends 120 ft. (36.5 m) and clears 15 ft. 5 in. (4.7 m). According to the Sargent Web site, the first bridge was built in 1943 as a 96- by 18-ft. (29 by 5.5 m) floating wooden pontoon.
In 1975, the old wooden bridge was replaced with a larger metal pontoon span, which cost $270,000 to install. New approaches were added in 1981, and no additions have been made since.
Boats and barges traveling the Intracoastal Waterway radio an operator in the bridge tower, who then stops traffic and slowly swings the bridge open to the east. Currently, five full-time operators staff the tower around the clock.
It typically takes 15 minutes to open the bridge and allow barges to pass through, sometimes longer, Gartman said.
From Aug. 15 to 24, the operators opened the bridge for 233 barges and 66 pleasure boats, in addition to seven shrimp and four work boats.
“That’s not even a holiday weekend,’’ Gartman said, thumbing through pages of the log the operators keep.
“Right now, there’s only about two cars, but on the weekends, cars are usually backed up to that caution signal,’’ he added, pointing to a light several miles away on FM 457.
That wait is another deterrent for residents like Carter.
“I don’t like waiting in line,’’ Carter said. “I think the new bridge is going to be cool.’’
Mounting maintenance costs also contribute to the need for a new bridge, Carlson said. A combination of many now-obsolete parts and operator salaries amounts to about $500,000 in operating costs.
“There’s a lot of the parts that they don’t make anymore, so if it breaks, we have to come up with our own fix,’’ Carlson said.
In 2009, the highway department opted to replace the last remaining swing bridge — about 20 mi. from the current one on FM 2031 in Matagorda — for much the same reason, Carlson said.
“Because there is more clearance on the other side of that bridge, it’s just a standard bridge instead of a corkscrew design,’’ he said.
The proposed new bridge would remain stationary at all times, allowing for an uninterrupted flow of traffic from Sargent to the island at all hours. This fact is critical for emergency situations, Carlson said.
“We’re looking at it solely from a safety and maintenance perspective,’’ Carlson said. “The new bridge will allow unimpeded access for emergency vehicles.’’
Emergency responders typically call the operators with enough time for them to halt waterway traffic and open the bridge, but there have been times when that wasn’t the case, Gartman said.
“We’ve always had communication with the fire department and EMS if there is an emergency,’’ he said. “But when we get a call, we shut down boat traffic, and we’re shut down until they come back.’’
“With big projects like this, it takes this long to get the environmental assessment ready,’’ Carlson said. “We’re dealing with a fragile ecosystem with the Intracoastal Waterway and the beaches, so we want to make sure that all our plans are not going to cause any damage other than the minimal amount necessary.’’
If most residents are in favor of the project, the bidding process is tentatively slated to begin next July, Carlson said.
“We’re not going to go against the public’s wishes, but if they give us the OK, it’ll probably be complete by 2018,’’ he said.
The project requires 4.2 acres of additional right of way, and will displace one single-family home as well as several buildings owned by the highway department. Carlson said the department is in talks with the owner of the residence to purchase the land, and will offer relocation assistance.
Construction will not affect traffic, Carlson said.
“The bridge will still be operational,’’ he said. “They’ll build it all around us, and then once it’s open, they’ll likely tear out this bridge.’’
Although Gartman has spent almost two decades manning the bridge tower, he is fairly unsentimental about its potential replacement.
“I think it’s fine,’’ he said. “It gives me a chance to move out of here and do something else.’’
Sargent resident Annette Irvin is more nostalgic about the community staple, but she is heartened by the prospect of less traffic.
“I’d miss the swing bridge. It’s the last one in Texas,’’ she said. “But I don’t like waiting in line either.’’
Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said he was torn. As county emergency management director, he knows a stationary bridge will allow much easier ingress and egress for emergency vehicles.
As a Matagorda County native who spent his boyhood days traipsing across the bridge with his dad as the two fished for flounder, however, McDonald said he will miss the Sargent fixture.
“It’s a potential low-maintenance item for emergency management, and as county emergency management director, I would be more comfortable knowing we can evacuate our folks over that bridge 24/7,’’ he said.
“But I’ll admit, I grew up here in Matagorda County and waited on that bridge and the Matagorda swing bridge.’’
According to the Sargent Web site, the community’s modest population of 500 full-time residents can swell to about 4,000 or 5,000 on the weekends. McDonald said he isn’t certain what impact the new bridge would have on tourism.
“Economically, people come to see the swing bridge. I expect there are a lot of little kids who get a charge from going up the bridge, as I did,’’ he said. “But I imagine people who have second and third homes down there would like to get to their homes faster.
“And it goes without saying that if you can get over it quicker, perhaps it will increase folks coming in.’’
Ultimately, McDonald said, the decision is purely up to the highway department.
Kenneth Cain, who spends about five days a week at the home he owns in Sargent, said he thought a new bridge would increase property values.
“It’s got to,’’ he said.
Still, like Carter and Irvin, Cain is receptive to change in his community.
“I think it’d be nice,’’ he said.
“We’ll miss it, but progress keeps happening.’’