One in Nine Bridges 'Structurally Deficient,' But Officials Say Not Unsafe

By: Olivia Fecteau Email
By: Olivia Fecteau Email
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Like the cars that cross them, bridges need repair and maintenance. A report released by the group Transportation for America shows that one in every nine bridges across the nation is “structurally deficient” or needs serious repairs.

The numbers are similar in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. But transportation officials say the term “structurally deficient” can be confusing, as it doesn’t necessarily mean a bridge is unsafe.

“A structurally deficient bridge is like a house,” Allen Blair, who works for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said. “It may need a new roof, it may need a driveway, you may need to fix a wall or two, [but] you can still live in it.”

Representatives from the Ohio Department of Transportation and the West Virginia Division of Highways echoed Blair’s comments, saying that “structurally deficient” is not an indicator of a bridge’s safety. Instead, they say, it’s an engineering term – and influenced by the age of the bridges. In West Virginia, the average age of a bridge is approximately 50 years old. Federal law requires them to be inspected every two years.

When engineers inspect bridges, they rate three key parts of the bridge on a 0 to 9 scale, with 9 being the best condition. If one or more of those components rates below a 4, engineers consider the bridge structurally deficient. The three parts are the deck (or top surface where cars and trucks cross), the superstructure (which supports the deck) and the substructure (which uses the ground to support the bridge structure).

When this happens, the state might do repairs and fix the bridge. It can also choose to restrict heavy traffic on the bridge or lower the weight limit. If engineers believe it is unsafe, they say they will close it.

“They are constantly monitored. If there is a bridge that is structurally deficient, we watch that very closely,” Blair said.

In West Virginia, more than 13 percent of bridges are structurally deficient. In Ohio and Kentucky, the number is closer to nine percent. In all three states, the number of structurally deficient bridges has gone down slightly since 2011, despite many bridges that are aging.

“A lot of these bridges that are structurally deficient are nearing the end of their lifespan. They're not at the end of their lifespan, so that means that a structurally deficient bridge is perfectly usable. It may be time to start looking at fixing it or replacing it,” Blair said.

ODOT cautions drivers that even the safest bridge is not safe from driver error. The bridge that collapsed in Washington State was affected by a vehicle that went over height limits and hit a beam, taking out a section of the bridge. Blair said this was their concern with the green bridge in Ashland.

Wayne County has one of the highest rates of structurally deficient bridges in West Virginia – nearly one in four. However, most of them don’t get much traffic, compared to areas like I-64.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation this week to repair and replace bridges in the state that are deficient or aging.

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