West Virginia Division of Highways Confident in Bridge Inspection Program | News, Sports, Jobs
WHEELING — West Virginia Highways Division officials are confident in their system of protocols and procedures after a Pittsburgh bridge collapse put the practice of bridge inspections under a national microscope.
The collapse of the Forbes Avenue Bridge over Fern Hollow in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park has caught the attention of concerned motorists across the country, as well as public leaders and professionals near and far who are tasked with ensuring that roads and bridges are safe for public travel.
District Engineer Tony Clark, director of WVDOH’s District 6, said he couldn’t comment on how bridge inspections are handled in Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania. However, he noted that the incident shed light on the inspection processes used by officials across the country.
In the Mountain State, the practice is meticulous, he says.
“We at the West Virginia DOH have a very robust bridge inspection and maintenance program,” Clark said. “It’s based on different factors. Generally, bridges in the worst condition undergo more inspections.
While some bridges may be inspected once every two or three years, others in poor condition are inspected annually, Clark explained.
“If there is anything that concerns us – if there is any problem or if there was something imminent, we would close the bridge,” he said.
According to 2021 data from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, West Virginia has the highest percentage of bridges classified as structurally deficient in the United States at 20.4%. Of the state’s 7,314 bridges, 1,490 have one of the key elements in poor or worse condition.
State officials stressed that if a bridge is open to the public, it has been inspected and deemed safe. There are, however, situations where the condition of an aging bridge deteriorates, while it is still considered serviceable, but with a reduced weight limit.
Many different areas of each deck are inspected, and they all have different effects on the overall rating, Clark said. The inspectors issue a deck note. There is a superstructure assessment on areas such as steel girders and an inspection of a bridge’s substructure, which may include abutments, piers, concrete and other areas.
Areas of concern, such as rust in structural supports under a bridge, are documented and monitored regularly.
Clark said the state is inspecting 511 bridges in the six-county WVDOH District 6 area, which includes all of the Northern Panhandle counties — Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler. Although the state does not own and maintain all of these bridges, the DOH does have inspectors who regularly inspect some bridges maintained by other municipalities.
In Wheeling, for example, the Washington Avenue Bridge, currently closed under renovation, is owned by the city, but inspected by the county. However, the city was able to apply for funding through the state’s Orphan Roads and Bridges Program, and the state will support the majority of the tab that will lead to the planned replacement of the bridge.
Following an inspection last fall, the state determined that the Washington Avenue Bridge was at risk of “imminent failure” — not “imminent collapse,” city officials stressed. So the city hired a contractor for $386,172 to repair the bridge to the point where it can stay open until the state moves forward with the project that will totally replace the bridge. Otherwise, the frequently used bridge is expected to be closed to traffic until the start of the $7.8 million replacement project – which officials say could be late next year.
Clark said design changes have been made over the years in bridge construction to help make spans even safer. Some of the biggest changes have come as a result of engineers investigating past disasters.
“Unfortunately, many corrections were made to the designs following a disaster,” he said. “You always want to know why something like this happened.”
Investigations are still ongoing to find out what exactly caused the Pittsburgh Bridge to collapse. Preliminary reports indicate that the weight caused by a deep layer of snow and a large bus are possible contributing factors. Either way, Clark said incidents like this cause everyone in the road and bridge inspection business to take into perspective the seriousness and importance of their responsibility to the public.
“Not only us, but pretty much every bridge operator across the country is collectively taking a step back and thinking a little bit,” he said following incidents like this. “They need to figure out what caused the collapse, and we need to see if there’s anything we have that comes close to that to make sure there’s nothing we could have missed.”
Clark noted that the public should be assured that the WVDOH has confidence in its system of checks and balances that are in place to ensure that nothing that could lead to a bridge collapse doesn’t fall through the cracks.
The nation has learned from the past tragedy of the W.Va.
Tracy Brown, PE, bridge engineer with the West Virginia Division of State Highways, said WVDOH’s bridge safety inspection program ensures bridges are safe, following a rigorous schedule of inspections and by providing full and comprehensive training to its bridge inspectors. “Our benchmark is that we wouldn’t put anyone’s family on a bridge that we wouldn’t put our own families on,” Brown said.
It was a West Virginia tragedy – the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, W.Va., in which 46 people lost their lives – that spurred the development of national bridge inspection standards , created by the Federal Highway Administration in 1971.
“We are teaching our new bridge safety inspectors about the tragedy at Silver Bridge and instilling in them that it may take a little longer to ensure their work is done completely and accurately, but in the end Ultimately, they protect the lives of every person who crosses each of our 7,000 bridges,” Brown said.
The NBIS applies to all road bridges on public roads, he added. It requires that bridges and their various components be inspected by properly trained inspectors at least once every two years.
“West Virginia goes above and beyond federal regulations where warranted and ensures that each crew chief not only meets federal requirements, but is also able to pass a comprehensive bridge safety inspector exam” , explained Brown. “This exam not only covers the skill set of team leaders, but also tests the ability of team leaders to properly analyze bridge inspection data and understand how bridges ‘behave’ in different environments. .
“Our program was in place before the recent bridge collapse in Pittsburgh. Due to the diligence with which each member of our bridge inspection team has worked to ensure the safety of West Virginia bridges, we have not identified any additional steps for our bridge safety inspections.
The state of West Virginia is making progress in maintaining its infrastructure as a whole, according to Brown, who noted that over the past few years, the DOH has implemented programs to extend the useful life. of its bridges. These include steps as simple as cleaning and painting sooner rather than later, and using data-driven decision-making to drive the entire system forward, make the best use of resources, and have a system that improves, rather than declines, over time.
Municipalities also face challenges with aging infrastructure
In addition to state DOH safety programs, municipalities are also responsible for ensuring bridges on local and county roads are regularly inspected and property maintained. In the city of Wheeling, officials noted last week that continued investment of public funds in infrastructure projects is critical to maintaining security.
“I think we all saw the bridge collapse in Pittsburgh last week, and it alerted us all,” Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said. “We have a lot of aging infrastructure in this community, like a lot of towns in the Rust Belt. Pittsburgh is just up the river, and they had the same problem with a lot of their bridges. »
Over the past two years, the City of Wheeling has invested additional funds in accounts dedicated to public infrastructure improvement projects. Millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds from CARES Act refunds have gone to the city’s project fund, and half of the money generated from the city’s new service fee is going toward various infrastructure improvements.
“I’m very happy that we’ve made investments and set aside funds for these infrastructure improvements because when many bridges were built 50 to 60 years ago, you run into these issues,” Elliott said. .