Nearly 1,000 W.Va. bridges rated 'structurally deficient'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Elm Grove Stone Arch Bridge in Wheeling may be the worst bridge in West Virginia.
The Elm Grove, built in 1817 and rehabilitated in 1931 and the 1950s, carries more than 20,000 cars each day across Little Wheeling Creek, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration.
The FHWA has judged both its substructure and superstructure -- all of its supports and the span itself -- to be poor. Its foundations are unstable for the conditions of the creek it crosses. Its railings, transitions and guardrails do not meet acceptable standards. In short, the FHWA says the bridge is "basically intolerable, requiring high priority of corrective action," and gives it a sufficiency rating of 12.4 on a scale of 0-100.
The Elm Grove is not alone. According to an analysis of the National Bridge Inventory database, which rates every bridge in the country, nearly 1,000 West Virginia bridges are "structurally deficient" and about 1,600 others are "functionally obsolete."
The National Bridge Inventory was created in response to the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, which killed 46 people.
Tens of thousands of bridges across the United States share these labels, although the numbers are proportionately higher in West Virginia.
State officials stress that ratings and terminology are germane to engineers and should not be misconstrued.
"We're not putting any vehicles across anything that's unsafe," said Brent Walker, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Transportation.
The numerical bridge ratings are used as a guideline to prioritize where federal funds should be spent. Any bridge scoring below a 50 is eligible for federal replacement and anything scoring below an 80 is eligible for renovation or rehabilitation. A score of 0 indicates an "entirely deficient" bridge and 100 an "entirely sufficient" bridge.
At least 22 West Virginia bridges have ratings lower than the Elm Grove Bridge -- seven are rated 0 -- but none carry as much traffic.
The most inspected bridge in West Virginia may be the Thomas Burford Pugh Memorial Bridge, which carries W.Va. 41 across the New River in Prince. The bridge is "structurally deficient," scores a 0 on the sufficiency scale and needs to be inspected every three months, rather than every two years, as is the norm.
The bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River north of Seattle last week had a score of 57. It was deemed "functionally obsolete" but not "structurally deficient."
The "functionally obsolete" label does not mean a bridge is unsafe. It means that the bridge was built to different standards than are used today.
"Functionally obsolete has to do with the design of the bridge," said Nancy Singer, an FHWA spokeswoman. "Let's say you have a bridge that was built with two lanes four years ago, but today you need four lanes. There's nothing wrong with the condition of the bridge, but it needs to serve greater traffic, so in that sense it's obsolete."
The Virginia Department of Transportation offers another useful metaphor for what is meant by a "functionally obsolete" bridge.
"A functionally obsolete bridge is similar to an older house. A house built in 1950 might be perfectly acceptable to live in, but it does not meet all of today's building codes. Yet, when it comes time to consider upgrading that house or making improvements, the owner must look at ways to bring the structure up to current standards," the Virginia DOT writes.
In Charleston, the South Side Bridge and the Patrick Street Bridge both carry about 20,000 cars a day and are considered "functionally obsolete."
Both bridges were originally built in the 1930s. The South Side Bridge went through major renovations in 1990, and was resurfaced and reinforced in 2009 for about $1.5 million. The Patrick Street Bridge had patching and repairs done in 2004.
As of the 2012 database, both bridges had a sufficiency rating just below 50, making them eligible for replacement.
Just because a bridge is eligible for replacement or repair, however, does not mean that any work will be done.
Nearly 40 percent of the state's bridges, about 2,700 bridges, are eligible for replacement or renovation.
"We regularly work through a portion of that number, we evaluate those structures based on the money available," said Kyle Stollings, the director of the maintenance division at the state Division of Highways. "If you get below a 50, it's more an indicator that you need to be monitoring the bridge."
For the last five years, the state has spent about $130 million annually on bridge projects, a mix of state and federal money.
That's paid for about 70 bridge replacements and 70 other bridge projects each year.
The state will often impose weight limits on bridges that are deemed "structurally deficient."
When those weight limits are not heeded, there can be consequences.
In March, a cable snapped on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. The cable was meant to stabilize the bridge in high winds, and there was no serious damage, but the bridge was closed for several days.
Walker said it snapped because a bus had ignored the weight limits.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is deemed "functionally obsolete" and scores only a 13.4 on the sufficiency scale.
In addition to being "functionally obsolete," the bridge that collapsed last week in Washington was also designated "fracture critical," meaning if one key piece is taken out, the bridge could collapse.
So when a truck crashed into a girder, a section of bridge fell into the river below.
In West Virginia, 478 bridges, including the South Street Bridge and the Patrick Street Bridge, are "fracture critical."
They're all completely safe, but an ill-placed accident could change that.
"If a truck hits in the right place it could take it down," said Bill Wolford, supervisor of bridge inspections in the state. "It really doesn't have to do with the age, just where it hits."
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.