By John Raby
State highway officials say West Virginia’s bridges are safe despite dozens that are both in disrepair and at risk of collapse if hit hard enough in the wrong place.
An Associated Press review of federal records found that 178 West Virginia bridges have been designated “fracture critical” — they don’t have redundant protections and are at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails — and “structurally deficient” — in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems.
Experts say the combination of red-flag categories is particularly problematic.
At least three of those West Virginia bridges were along interstates — two on I-70 in Wheeling and another along I-64 in Barboursville.
“We go out every day to make sure these bridges are safe to the traveling public,” state Department of Transportation senior bridge engineer Billy Varney said. “I have family that drives across these bridges as well. If we felt that there were safety issues, we wouldn’t be putting the public on those bridges.”
Among the state’s 10 highway districts, bridges that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical were more likely to be found in the southern part of the state, where coal mining and truck traffic is prevalent. There were 26 such bridges in the district encompassing Fayette, Greenbrier, Monroe, Nicholas and Summers counties, and 25 such bridges in the district that includes Cabell, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo and Wayne counties.
Nationally, the AP review identified nearly 7,800 bridges nationwide falling in both categories. The AP reviewed data involving 607,380 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory, which are subject to National Bridge Inspection Standards.
The federal government requires states to inspect bridges at least every two years, a mandate inspired by the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge linking Point Pleasant to Ohio that killed 46 people.
The AP review found that 80 of the 178 West Virginia bridges had been inspected in the previous two years, 87 in the previous year and one in the previous three months. State transportation department spokesman Brent Walker said inspections are done more frequently when specific problems or deficiencies are found.
Inspectors look at three primary components: the steel beams and trusses, the support structures beneath them, and the roadway itself.
“Our inspection program is pretty good,” Walker said. “Let’s not forget the reason that we have it in this country is because of a bridge in West Virginia that collapsed.”
According to the Federal Highway Administration, 952, or 13 percent, of West Virginia’s 7,100 bridges are structurally deficient. Walker said any overpasses more than 20 feet in length are considered bridges in West Virginia.
“A high percentage of our bridges are over 50 years old, and so it doesn’t surprise us that we have such a high number of deficient bridges,” Walker said. “It doesn’t mean they’re unsafe. It just means they’re up in age.”
Some repairs are aesthetic, and weight limits can be reduced to as low as 2 tons as an alternative before bridges have to be closed for repairs. The DOH replaces aging bridges when it can afford to, but will make repairs and maintain bridges when possible to make them last longer, he said.
“If they get too bad, we’ll close them,” Walker said. “We’re not putting vehicles on unsafe bridges. We have a fairly aggressive bridge program that we go and attack the best we can. The bridges that need it, for the most part we’re practicing triage. A lot of times, it’s a funding issue as well.”
Walker said the department works with a budget of about $130 million, including $100 million from the federal government, for state bridge projects.
A report released earlier this year by the Washington-based coalition Transportation for America ranked West Virginia as 14th worst among the states in the percentage of structure deficient bridges, though that was an improvement from the previous two years.
The coalition’s report found that 36 percent of Pocahontas County’s 98 bridges and 26 percent of Marshall County’s 82 bridges were deficient, the highest percentages in the state. Bridges in Webster, Gilmer and Braxton counties had the lowest deficiency rates.