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Congress and President Joe Biden have committed to spending big dollars on roads and bridges. However, Biden’s recent visit to Pittsburgh to discuss the infrastructure program was punctuated by the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. Since then, residents of West Virginia have been spurred to ask questions about their own bridges.
A recent analysis of National Bridge Inventory data shows that 7 percent of all bridges in the U.S. received a poor rating. West Virginia has the highest rate in the country, with more than 20 percent of the state’s bridges considered structurally deficient or in poor condition.
On January 28, the day theFern Hollow Bridge collapsed, Morgantown resident Stephanie Shepard began researching the conditions of bridges in her area.
“I’m from this area originally, I’ve been over that bridge many times. So I started to wonder if there were other bridges that were at risk in the area, or if that was the only one,” Shepard said.
Like a lot of people looking for answers in the aftermath of the collapse, Shepard heard that the Fern Hollow Bridge had been rated poor on the NBI, and she quickly searched the database for poor bridges in Monongalia County.
The database, compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, has information on all bridges and tunnels in the United States. During her research, Shepard discovered it had been created largely as a response to the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, W. Va. in 1967, a key event in the Mothman legend.
Shepard found that more than one out of every six bridges in Monongalia County were rated poor, like the bridge that had collapsed in Pittsburgh.
Shepard made a map of all the bridges’ locations, and posted it to a Morgantown community page on Facebook.
“I wanted that knowledge to be available to people,” Shepard said.
Shepard and others like her across the country have cause for concern, and have started asking questions about the nation’s infrastructure.
The West Virginia Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment, but in just the last few months, politicians have started answering.
Governor Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program has identified more than 150 bridges it will be working on with the program’s projected $2.7 billion. The state is also expected to receive over $500 million for bridge repairs alone from the federal infrastructure bill over the next five years.
These planned expenditures come at a time when more attention is being placed on the nation’s aging infrastructure.
“It is not uncommon to have such distress in these bridges, especially with those bridges that have been in service 50 years plus,” said Hota GangaRao, Ph.D. He is the director of the Construction Facilities Center at West Virginia University, and has been studying and helping to build bridges in the state since 1968, almost as long as the NBI has existed.
“Believe it or not, we have about 50 percent of our bridges that have a service life of 50 years plus in the country today. So we have a major issue that needs addressing,” GangaRao said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the causes of January’s collapse, but structural failure due to faulty bridge parts is rare in the United States. More commonly, bridges fail due to external factors such as flooding, overloading, or collisions by boats.
So while concern is warranted, and much work is needed, GangaRao says the bridges Shepard and others have identified are stable.
“Poor rating does not mean that it will collapse tomorrow or tonight, ” he said.
Age is a major factor, but more than anything is the quality of the bridge’s deck. That’s the surface of the bridge, made of concrete or asphalt, that you walk and drive over. If the deck is in good condition, GangaRao says it will protect the larger structure from the corrosive effects of road salts and other chemicals.
GangaRao points out that the Fern Hollow Bridge’s decking was almost 10 years past its planned service period.
For community members like Shepard interested in taking action to protect and improve local bridges, GangaRao suggests reporting any visible issues to the appropriate authorities.
“I’m not at all saying one should take anything into their hands. Alerting the appropriate authorities will help a great deal,” he said.
Another thing he recommends is advocating for local bridges to be washed regularly.
But that still leaves questions for Shepard.
“I have to wonder why they’re still in poor condition, and why they haven’t been repaired,” Shepard said.
One of West Virginia’s most enduring symbols is a bridge: the New River Gorge Bridge. And while that great arch might get most of the world’s attention, the more than 7,000 other bridges in the state need some attention as well.