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River, Kentucky:
The Abridged Version

The little community of River, Kentucky, boasts a brand new tourist attraction—the world's longest plastic-deck bridge—and people are coming from all over to see it. "We had some people the other night from New York. We've had some from Connecticut—everywhere," says Patsy VanHoose, postmaster of River in Johnson County.

Photo of the old wooden deck bridgeCompleted last April, this cable suspension footbridge spans the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, and the bridge makes the second world record for Issam Harik, UK civil engineering professor. He and his former students also designed the world's longest plastic-beam bridge, located in Kentucky near Cave Run Lake, which received international attention. Harik, with doctoral students Chris Hill and Sasan Pascha, and Jack Sellars of S.E.A. Engineers, designed the Johnson County bridge.

Harik read about the need for a new bridge in the Lexington Herald-Leader, and immediately saw an opportunity. "The whole idea behind doing it was to build the longest plastic-deck bridge in the world," he says. The 420-foot pedestrian bridge in River surpasses by 30 feet the second longest plastic-deck bridge, Scotland's Aberfeldy Bridge.

Photo of the new plastic-deck bridgeThe technical name for the material in the deck is "glass fiber-reinforced polymer composites," Harik says. "But the layman's term is 'plastics,' which can be confusing because most folks automatically think of Tupperware." Household plastic shares little in common with this material, though—some of the fibers Harik works with are many times stronger than steel. "The main advantage of the composites is that they're quite durable," he explains.

The plastic deck was manufactured in Virginia, then delivered to River where it was cut and assembled. Though more expensive than a wooden bridge, the new one is safer and will last much longer. "The existing deck was made out of wooden planks. They needed constant replacement," Harik says.

"We were replacing a board about every week," says Freeman Cantrell, laborer for the Johnson County Road Department. The original 1930s bridge also swayed, leaned to the south, and had broken and rusted wires.

"There were times in the winter when I refused to walk on it," says Dennis Lyons, a River resident who began lobbying for a new bridge 10 years ago. But some of the locals were more daring.

"Kids rode their four-wheelers, bicycles and motorcycles across the old one," says VanHoose. "This one guy even took his horse across. He had to blindfold it."

The pedestrian bridge saves an otherwise 20-mile drive to the post office, general store, and friends and family who live directly across the river. Residents used the old bridge because they grew up with it and had no fear of it.

"I walked on it the night before they tore it down," recalls VanHoose, who now uses the new bridge to walk from her house to the post office. "I didn't realize how dangerous it was until they put the new one beside it."

Harik is careful to give credit to others involved in the project, such as Freddie Goble, of the Big Sandy Area Development District. "Goble was really the one who was able to link everybody to the project," he says. The contractor was Bush and Burchett Inc., and the engineers were Bocook Engineering and S.E.A. Engineers Inc.

The $527,560 bridge was funded by the Federal Highway Administration, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and local resident R.B. Preston.

—David Wheeler