Wheeling bridges safe for travel

WHEELING – Bridges along Interstate 70 through Wheeling are in need of repair – but state officials say they are safe.

West Virginia Division of Highways District 6 bridge engineer Dave Sada identified the Fort Henry Bridge leading into Ohio and a ramp leading from I-70 westbound to southbound state Rout 2/U.S. Route 250 as the two spans referred to in a report released earlier this week by the Associated Press concerning the nation’s bridges.

The AP report, based on a review of the Federal National Bridge Inventory, showed two I-70 bridges in Wheeling are among 178 bridges statewide deemed to be both “fracture critical” and “structurally deficient.”

The report defines fracture critical bridges as those without redundant protections and in danger of collapse if a single, vital component fails. Bridges are considered to be structurally deficient if a component shows advanced deterioration or other problems.

“It’s safe to say all our bridges are fracture critical,” Sada said. “That simply means they could fail if a vital component is struck or severely damaged.”

He said his department has a rigid bridge inspection schedule in place and some spans are examined annually while others are checked once every two years.

State Division of Highways spokesman Brent Walker said the AP findings didn’t reveal anything officials weren’t already aware of.

“We are aware of the condition of our bridges across the state,” he said. “We have a very aggressive bridge inspection system in place. There are fracture critical elements on every bridge we have.”

Walker said the state has the ability to replace, repair, reduce weight limits or close any span deemed unsafe.

“The safety of the traveling public is our top priority,” he said.

Walker said phrases such as fracture critical, structurally deficient and functionally obsolete are engineering terms sounding worse than they are.

“Fracture critical does not mean a bridge in unsafe,” he said. “It means the bridge has steel super structure members that could fail if they are damaged. Bridges are designed in such a way that damage to one section in most cases is absorbed by other components.”

Walker said structurally deficient bridges have non-load bearing members showing signs of deterioration while functionally obsolete spans are those that are taking on more traffic than they were designed for.

He said the state’s eight-year, $80 million plan to renovate every bridge and overpass along I-70 through Wheeling is not a result of the latest findings.

“The $80 million we plan to spend on the Wheeling bridges is in addition to our statewide $130 million annual bridge budget,” he said.

Walker said this latest report does not change the priority of work to be done over the next eight years.