Pocahontas bridges worst in state
On August 1, 2007, an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 motorists and injuring 145. A school bus carrying 60 children stopped just short of plunging off of a broken span. Inspectors had designated the bridge "structurally deficient" since 1990.
According to a recent report, Pocahontas County has 36 structurally deficient highway bridges, the same substandard rating as the failed Minneapolis bridge. The report, which utilizes Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data, claims the county has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the state.
Transportation For America (TFA), a coalition of business, environmental, governmental, community development and special interest groups, published a report entitled, "The Fix We're In For: The State of West Virginia's Bridges," and similar reports for all states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. overall. The report stresses the importance of bridges to the U.S. transportation network and the critical need for better maintenance of our highway infrastructure.
TFA's report cites data from the FHWA's 2010 National Bridge Inventory (NBI), a summary of the number, location, and condition of highway bridges in each state. The FHWA releases NBI data every year and 2010 data was released in February.
West Virginia ranks eighth-worst in overall bridge condition in the U.S., with nearly 17 percent of its bridges classified as structurally deficient. Pocahontas County ranks worst in the state, with 36 out of 85 bridges classified as structurally deficient (42.4 percent). On average, vehicles cross structurally deficient bridges 19,760 times every day in Pocahontas County.
Nationwide, 11 percent of 69,223 highway bridges are classified as structurally deficient.
A bridge must have a major defect to be classified as structurally deficient. Inspectors grade three components of a bridge for structural integrity: the substructure or culvert, the superstructure and the deck. The three components are graded on a one-to-10 scale. If any of the three components is graded at four or less (poor or worse), the bridge is classified as structurally deficient.
States must inspect bridges 20 feet or longer every two years, but bridges graded as "very good" may be inspected every four years. Structurally deficient bridges must be inspected every year.
Pocahontas County Department of Highways (DOH) regional manager Jim McCoy said the department is working on county bridges as resources allow. A bridge between Arbovale and Boyer on Route 92 currently is being replaced and three other bridges are slated for replacement in the near future: the Route 219 bridge in Buckeye, the Greenbrier River bridge near Buckeye and the Knapps Creek bridge west of Huntersville.
Replacement of those four bridges will reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges in the county to 32 (37.6 percent), but still leave the county as one of the worst two counties in bridge maintenance. Marshall County is currently second worst in the state at 38.2 percent. Pendleton County is third worst at 34.1 percent.
The counties with the lowest rate of structurally deficient bridges are Braxton County (2.5 percent); Webster County (3.2 percent) and Gilmer County (3.3 percent).
According to the TFA report, West Virginia's 17 percent of structurally deficient bridges is eighth from the bottom, nationally. Pennsylvania is worst in the country at 26.5 percent and Nevada ranks best at 2.2 percent.
DOH district bridge engineer Dave Scott said his more current data showed 34 out of 92 bridges in Pocahontas County rated as structurally deficient. Those numbers slightly improve the county's percentage to 37 percent and second-worst in the state.
The engineer said the large number of small bridges in Pocahontas County made a side-by-side comparison, with just raw numbers, a rather unfair comparison.
"You can take numbers and show whatever you want, but it's not necessarily the true picture," he said.
Scott stressed that a structurally deficient rating does not mean a bridge is unsafe.
"Some of these bridges that are structurally deficient, maybe it's just the deck," he said. "It might be a poor timber deck on a back road and when we get time and resources, we replace that deck. That would remove that deck from being structurally deficient - unless there's a weak problem in another element on bridge - then the bridge wouldn't be structurally deficient."
The engineer said DOH places weight restrictions on bridges with known problems and would close any bridge it considered unsafe.
"We don't have any bridges in Pocahontas County that are in critical shape," he said. "Now, we have some that, you know, have features, elements of the bridge that are rated poor and that kicks them out as structurally deficient. But we only have seven bridges in the county that have any kind of weight restriction on them."
Scott said weather conditions are one reason for Pocahontas County's low bridge ratings.
"I'd like to replace every bridge that needs replaced, but again, it's a function of money," he said. "That's the biggest thing. You got to remember, we're in an area that receives a lot of winter salt and it's very detrimental to bridges, where some of these other states might not have the severe conditions that we have. So, there's just a multitude of factors that can go into that."
The bridge expert said federal highway money was disbursed on a statewide priority basis and that Pocahontas County was not always at the top of the list.
"They prioritize their needs statewide," he said. "We've gotten rid of a lot of major bridges here in the last several years that have taken a big chunk of money to replace. Like the bridge down there in the Nitro area - that was like $80 million."
Scott said his district has done well with the resources available.
"We run a pretty decent program," he said. "We've made a lot of progress in 20 years. We've replaced a lot of bridges with a small bridge program that the district has been administering for 20 years or so. We've replaced quite a few small bridges. That's primarily been a state-run program and not federal aid."
The bridge engineer said a total of seven bridges in Pocahontas County will be replaced between now and 2015, not including the bridge under construction near Arbovale.
TFA's report concludes with a call for action.
"Preserving West Virginia's existing transportation system is crucial to ensuring regional prosperity, safety and a higher quality of life," the report states. "The economic and social cost of neglect is simply too high. It is time for our policymakers to shore up our infrastructure and ensure Americans get the most bang out of our transportation buck."
The oldest bridge in America still used for highway traffic is the stone-arch King's Highway Bridge in Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, built in 1697. According to Guiness World Records, the oldest bridge in the world, still in use, is a stone slab bridge over the River Meles in Turkey, built around 850 B.C.
According the the TFA report, the expected lifespan of an American highway bridge is 50 years.
The TFA report and links to FHWA data can be found online at t4america.org.