Kentucky officials are studying ferry service to move traffic across Kentucky Lake until the U.S. 68/Route 80 bridge can be repaired after a 322-ft span collapsed in a Jan. 26 ship collision. An underwater inspection team from Collins Engineers Inc., Chicago, has found "no significant damage" to the old steel-truss-bridge piers, Gov. Steve Beshear (D) announced on Feb. 17.

Geotechnical work is under way for a planned four-lane replacement bridge, but the $165-million structure is still years from completion, say Kentucky Transportation Cabinet officials. Surveys of the 3,000-ft-long bridge continue, but Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock says the finding "should help simplify efforts to replace the missing truss-and-deck section."

The agency has hired consultants Michael Baker Jr. Inc. and URS Corp. to study repair options. Baker has the $16-million design contract for the new bridge and another over Lake Barkley. State bridge inspectors have placed laser markers atop the pier caps to monitor any movement, says Keith Todd, a KTC spokesman. Beshear says he wants some form of river crossing opened as soon as possible to eliminate a 90-minute detour north or south.

At peak, some 2,800 vehicles cross the bridge daily. A ferry service appears to be the immediate answer but would require permitting by multiple agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Delta Mariner, the cargo ship that struck the bridge, has been repaired and cleared to resume delivering rocket parts to Port Canaveral, Fla. It left Paducah late on Feb. 17. Foss Maritime Co., Seattle, the owner, is still removing underwater debris.

Foss filed a federal suit on Feb. 15 "seeking exoneration from or limitation of liability." It charges that only one span of the bridge was marked with navigational lights. Coast Guard Lt. Jennifer Jessee stated earlier that the ship "was not in the main channel span" when it hit the bridge. The Coast Guard is still investigating.