HARLINGEN — Rio Hondo is preparing to be cut in two.

Work to retrofit the city’s landmark mechanical lift bridge — and blocking all east-west traffic on FM 106 — could begin within six weeks, although officials say the state transportation department has only committed to the work starting sometime in September.

The bridge work was delayed until late summer because FM 106 is a key hurricane evacuation route for residents along the gulf coast, and city officials were leery of putting people fleeing a storm in jeopardy by closing the highway.

“At the beginning, people were saying it’s too long, and it’s not happening at the right time because school will be starting,” City Manager Ben Medina said yesterday.

“But of course we wanted to get through as much of the hurricane season as possible,” he added.

The $12 million refit of the yellow bridge, which opened in 1953, poses peculiar difficulties, engineers have said.

It is the only mechanical lift bridge in Texas, and Rio Hondo officials say there are only two others like it in the country, in California and in Louisiana. The Louisiana bridge no longer raises and lowers, merely serving as a fixed crossing.

That may make the Rio Hondo bridge unique, but it doesn’t make things easy.

Texas Department of Transportation officials say some replacement parts for the mechanisms that lift and lower the bridge will have to be machined from blueprints since no one manufactures the proper parts.

Most of Rio Hondo’s population resides on the east side of the Arroyo Colorado and won’t be affected as much by the bridge’s closure.

Still, Medina and Mayor Gus Olivares have insisted residents to the west will not be forgotten.

“We will probably place a (firefighting) tanker truck on the other side of the arroyo,” Medina said, and police patrols will be made regularly.

He said there are no plans for fire or police substations on the west bank while the bridge work continues.

“What we have there is important to us, but it’s not really necessary to set up a substation,” he said.

Given the unique, original construction of the bridge, TxDOT earlier estimated the work would take 11 months. But Medina says the city is hopeful the bridge will be completely closed to traffic for just six months.

“We’ll start off with one lane open and have some traffic control to let people go through,” Medina said. “Some days the bridge will be closed, then back to working again.

“Then it will be closed for a long period of time once they get to removing cables and motors that lift the bridge up and that’s going to be time-consuming.”

For the rest of this story and many other EXTRAS, go to our premium site, www.MyValleyStar.com.

Subscribe to it for only $6.99 per month or purchase a print subscription and receive the online version free, which includes an electronic version of the full newspaper and extra photo galleries, links and other information you can’t find anywhere else.