Port officials relieved as Rio Hondo bridge reopens

The Rio Hondo lift bridge is back in service. It was reopened to traffic on Sunday after contractors repaired a damaged I-beam. By Diana Eva Maldonado, Valley Morning Star

RIO HONDO — A week in limbo at the Port of Harlingen ended late Sunday afternoon with the reopening of the mechanical lift bridge here to both land and marine traffic.

The accident which shut down the bridge 11 days ago also cut off barge access to the port, since the bridge was locked in the down position and couldn’t raise to let barges past on the Arroyo Colorado.

“Everything went well, even better than expected,” Port Director Walker Smith on Monday afternoon. “We’re back up and rolling.”

The bridge was damaged when a Trailboss charter bus carrying ICE detainees hit a curb on entering the bridge and then careened across the bridge to smash part of the lift structure. The damage to the thick steel pylon was significant, but none of the four passengers on the bus suffered serious injuries.

The impact point on the bridge left one of the main steel beams twisted and the bridge unable to be raised to allow barge traffic upstream. TxDOT awarded a $111,000 contract to Gibson and Associates of Balch Springs for the repairs, which the company quickly made in five days.

The port is a key conduit in the export of agricultural products like cotton and sugar out of the Valley, and bringing in gasoline and diesel fuel. On a normal day, the bridge averages three lifts to allow barges to pass underneath.

Smith said the suspension of barge traffic last week wasn’t a total financial loss. While some were diverted to other locations with their loads, other captains just put them over to the bank or a convenient dock until they could proceed.

“Some of them were diverted, others were just put on hold until they could come in,” Smith said. “We had some barges that were just held in place until they heard that we were back up and going.”

The unique yellow bridge in Rio Hondo was closed to vehicle traffic for nearly two years between 2016 and 2018 for a $12.4 million retrofitting, but since it was in the up position, barge traffic could come and go without issue.

This past accident, which is still being investigated by several law enforcement agencies, shut the bridge down for 10 days before repairs were completed.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this happening given as many vehicles cross that bridge on a regular basis — on a daily basis,” Smith said of the accident. “I think this is a first.

“I do hope it’s the last, yes,” he added.