"We Treat Each Bridge Like Our Family's Crossing It"

Bridge Inspectors

Congress passed a bipartisan, five-year transportation funding bill last month.  Known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act or FAST Act, U. S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito says West Virginia’s highway and transit programs will receive more than two billion dollars over the next five years to advance critical projects and improve the poor condition of our roads and bridges.

There are over 7,000 bridges in West Virginia and in the course of your day, you probably cross at least one or two of them.  The Division of Highways employs dozens of bridge inspectors who closely monitor the condition of each of them.

Last fall,  Beth Vorhees  went on one such inspection to see what a day in the life of an inspector is really like.

“We are on I-64 westbound just outside of St. Albans. Every bridge in West Virginia has a story to tell and it’s up to bridge inspectors to find out what that story is.”

“If this falls or has a fracture in it than this whole span could come down, so these are inspected every two years.”

Bridge inspector Don Burford and his team mate Harry O’Connor are giving this small bridge a careful once over.  They pick and prod at the girders listening and looking to see what kind of condition it’s in.

Tracy Brown oversees bridge inspectors in District 1, a five county area. There are over 1200 bridges in his district, 600 in Kanawha County alone. Brown says this bridge taking traffic into St. Albans was built sometime in the mid to late 1960’s and these inspectors are looking at the wear and tear it’s received over the years.

Brown: “The inspectors are looking for any kind of deficiency in the structure, you know.  One on end of it definitely something you wouldn’t want to see would be a fatigue crack in the steel where the steel’s opened up.  They are looking for cracks in the welds and then on the other side they are looking for any dilapidated concrete in the substructure units, the piers and abutments looking for cracks in the deck.  Things that wouldn’t be a safety concern but would still be a deficiency in the bridge. They’re looking for any deficiency that would rate that bridge lower and they take that information that data from this inspection and they can compile an inspection report. They have to write a report when they get back to the office and then assign a condition code rating that the federal government outlines, you know, exactly defines what those are and we’ll get an overall rating that will determine if it’s structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, things like that.  We treat each bridge like we’ve got like our families is crossing them because somebody’s family is crossing that bridge and we take the safety to the public very, very seriously.  That’s what it’s all about for us, that’s why we exist.  And we have found things  and if there’s any question whatsoever we close a bridge or we post a bridge.  You know all our bridges are safe.  If they’re not safe then we make them safe by posting or closing or replacing, things like that.”

On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge crossing the Ohio River at Point Pleasant collapsed as the bridge was full of vehicles at rush hour killing  46 people.  The accident is why bridges are now inspected on a regular basis. The eye bar chain suspension bridge was built in 1928.  It was a defect in a single eye bar that brought the bridge down and the modern method of annual inspections began.

The tragedy led the federal bridge inspection program to take a scheduled view of the nation’s bridges. The state pays for the inspections, but the federal government reimburses 80 percent of the cost.


Credit West Virginia Public Broadcasting
W.Va DOH Chief Engineer Jimmy Reston, (right) and District One Bridge Engineer Tracy Brown, (left) observe bridge inspectors at work.

For all of the talk about this nation’s crumbling infrastructure, Jimmy Reston, the chief engineer with the West Virginia Department of Transportation stands behind the condition of all of the state’s bridges and the workers who maintain them.

Reston: “West Virginia’s bridge are in excellent shape.  We monitor as best we can.  The statistics are what they are.  The terms structurally deficient, functionally obsolete – a little misleading.  That’s a formula term.  Functionally obsolete usually means that it’s a little under width for the roadway.  Structurally deficient would mean that’s maybe it’s posted with a certain weight limit.  But those bridges are inspected annually.  They’re monitored, they’re evaluated, the posting is kept up to date.  We are always working very hard to eliminate posted bridges in the state.  It seems like we gain a little bit then we’ll lose a little bit so it’s just that way.”


Credit West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Bridge over I- 64 taking traffic from an exit ramp into St. Albans in Kanawha County, W. Va.

As for this two lane bridge crossing Interstate 64 in St. Albans, it looks a little rusty and weathered and could use a new coat of paint. But it’s going to be replaced.  This section of interstate is going to be upgraded to three lanes soon.  A new bridge will be built to cross it using upgraded construction materials and design.