CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the wake of last month's bridge collapse in Washington state, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to speed up its implementation of new bridge inspection standards and requirements.
A highway law passed in 2012 requires the DOT to update its qualifications for bridge inspectors and its standards for when and how bridges should be inspected. But the law, The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, gave the DOT three years to make the changes.
In a letter sent Wednesday, Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to pick up the pace.
"With one of every four bridges in the nation structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," Rahall wrote, "I strongly urge you to expedite implementation of new inspection standards and inspector training and qualifications."
In West Virginia the numbers are even higher. More than one of three bridges (36 percent) is structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, the seventh highest rate of any state in the country, according to Federal Highway Administration data.
Neither designation, structurally deficient nor functionally obsolete, necessarily means a bridge is unsafe and state officials stress that all open bridges are safe.
Structurally deficient is generally the more serious designation. It means that key parts of the bridge are in poor condition. Such bridges often have weight limits or other restrictions and require more maintenance. There are 952 structurally deficient bridges in West Virginia.
Functionally obsolete bridges were built to different standards than are used today. That could be something as benign as a two-lane bridge that now requires four lanes to serve increased traffic. But it could also portend something more ominous.
The bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River in Washington last month was functionally obsolete, but not structurally deficient. There are 1,595 functionally obsolete bridges in West Virginia.
The bridge in Washington also was deemed "fracture critical," meaning that if one key piece was taken out it could collapse.
So when a truck crashed into a support beam, a section of the bridge collapsed into the river.
About 7 percent of West Virginia's bridges, 478 in all, are "fracture critical," including the South Side Bridge and the Patrick Street Bridge in Charleston.