CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- 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.