Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Editorials

September 18, 2013

Structurally deficient: Aging bridges a serious concern

— — It is no secret that there are aging bridges across the Mountain State that are in urgent need of repair and replacement. And the problem is further aggravated in southern West Virginia  where coal mining and heavy truck traffic is prevalent — further taxing these aging structures to their limits.

But state highway officials argue that West Virginia bridges are safe despite dozens that are both in disrepair and at risk of collapse if hit hard enough in the wrong place. In fact, a recent Associated Press review of federal records found that 178 West Virginia bridges have been designated “fracture critical” — which means they don’t have redundant protections and are at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails — and “structurally deficient” — which means the structures are in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems.

The AP review found that among the state’s 10 highway districts, bridges that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical are more likely be to be found in southern West Virginia. In another words, we are driving across many of the state’s most dangerous bridges right here in the deep south counties.

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 found that 80 of the 178 bridges studied had been inspected during the past two years, 87 in the previous year, and one in the previous three months. Brent Walker, a spokesman for the DOH, told the AP that inspections are done more frequently if specific problems or deficiencies are found. And Bill Varney, a senior bridge engineer with the DOH, says bridges are inspected every day to ensure that they are safe to the traveling public.

The DOH says 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 adds. “Let’s not forget the reason that we have it in this country is because of a bridge in West Virginia that collapsed.”

In comparison to the AP review, the Federal Highway Administration reports that 952, or 13 percent, of West Virginia’s 7,100 bridges are structurally deficient.

Still, the AP review is reason for concern, and merits full attention and review by the DOH, as well as local, state and federal lawmakers.

Infrastructure across our nation — and right here in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia — is aging and in many instances obsolete. Bridges need to be repaired, and others need to be replaced. And that’s particularly true right here in the deep south counties where such aging structures have been neglected for far too long.

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