By William Lineberry and Jeannette Porter
On an average day, cars and trucks make more than 31 million trips over Virginia bridges that are obsolete or in disrepair. An analysis of data from the Virginia Department of Transportation shows that one-third of the state’s bridges need repair or rehabilitation – and in the city of Richmond, more than half the bridges need work.
The bridges requiring attention are labeled “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” Of the 158 bridges in Richmond, 87 – or 55 percent – fall in those categories.
Among the 109 Virginia cities and counties with more than 15 bridges, Richmond has the second-highest percentage of deficient or obsolete bridges. (Slightly worse is Bedford County, where 59 percent of the bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.)
Nine of the 10 most heavily traveled bridges in the Richmond metro area – mostly in the Interstate 95 corridor – are functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. And those bridges carry a lot of traffic.
Consider this: On an average day, vehicles go over bridges in Richmond a combined 4.6 million times. About 2.8 million, or 61 percent, of those crossings involve deficient or obsolete bridges.
That’s the highest percentage among Virginia localities with at least 1 million vehicles a day crossing their bridges.
Experts emphasize that “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” are technical terms that do not mean or imply imminent danger.
“ ‘Structurally deficient’ does not mean that the bridge is about to fall down,” said VDOT Richmond district bridge engineer Gary A. Martin. “But it does mean that the bridge needs some work.”
VDOT’s website defines “structurally deficient” as meaning “there are elements of the bridge that need to be monitored or repaired.” “Functionally obsolete,” as defined by VDOT, means “a bridge that was built to standards that are not used today.”
Bridges are inspected both for the state and for the federal National Bridge Inspection Program, which was started after a 1968 West Virginia bridge collapse killed 46 people. “Structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” are nationally applied terms defined by the NBI and used by bridge inspectors throughout the country.
VDOT is responsible for the maintenance of primary roads and their bridges throughout the commonwealth, explained Dawn Eischen, communications manager for the agency’s Richmond district. There are nine VDOT districts: Culpeper, Northern Virginia, Bristol, Fredericksburg, Hampton Roads, Lynchburg, Richmond, Salem and Staunton.
VDOT’s Richmond district includes the city itself; the suburban counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico; the outlying counties of Goochland, Powhatan, Amelia, Nottoway, Dinwiddie, Mecklenburg, Charles City and New Kent; and the city of Petersburg. In this district, one of every three bridges is deficient in some way.
Richmond’s challenges regarding bridges are shared by other districts in the state. There are more than 13,000 Virginia-maintained bridges, and one-third of them are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to VDOT data.
The worst area in the state for deficient and obsolete bridges is the Salem district in Southwestern Virginia, where 42 percent of all bridges are either functionally obsolete or deficient.
The condition of being obsolete or deficient is a function of the bridge’s age and upkeep. On average, bridges in Virginia are 50 years old or older. Much of the American interstate system, including bridges, was constructed shortly after World War II and had a life expectancy of 50 years. America’s bridges are beginning to show their age. And in Virginia, over half of the bridges are past their design life.
Of Virginia’s roads and bridges, Martin said, “The World War II date is probably true of the interstate, but our primary and secondary roads are even older than that.” Some of the oldest sections of Virginia interstate are in the Richmond district, he said.
These conditions are echoed on the national level as well. According to Federal Highway Administration data, roughly 25 percent of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. In its annual infrastructure report card for 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s bridges an overall grade of C+. This grade is up from the previous year’s C-.
The ASCE estimates that America’s bridges need $76 billion worth of repairs and upkeep.
“The longer you wait, the more it (bridge upkeep) costs,” said Clark Barrineau, government relations manager for ASCE. “It’s like a leaky roof: Act now, save money.”
But just as owners of a leaky roof may set out pots and pans to catch drips, the state of Virginia has made little progress in the last five years in reducing the percentage of deficient or obsolete bridges, according to FHWA data.
“I don’t want to get into the political reasons for this,” Martin said, “but (bridge repair and funding) has not been given the emphasis it should have.”
Bridge upkeep and inspections are not always the responsibility of VDOT, Eischen said. Cities and counties are sometimes responsible for their own secondary roads and bridges, including repair and inspection.
The Mayo Bridge in Richmond, formally known as the 14th Street Bridge, is one example of a locally maintained bridge in serious need of rehabilitation.
On average, more than 20,000 vehicles a day cross the 100-year-old bridge, which has not been substantially reconstructed or repaired since it was built in 1913. The bridge, which is the fourth oldest in the city and one of the oldest in the state, is structurally deficient and is currently being studied by the city’s public works department. It is the last historic bridge in Richmond that crosses the James River.
“It’s hard to discuss,” said Nykia Roberson-Ramos, an engineer with the city of Richmond. “It’s tied up with many different decisions. There is a lot of state and federal red tape.”
On a scale of 0-100, the Mayo Bridge has a sufficiency rating of 36. This rating qualifies the bridge for federal funding that would go toward its rehabilitation or repair. Throughout Virginia, more than 1,300 bridges have sufficiency ratings below 50. A sufficiency rating takes into consideration structural adequacy and safety, serviceability and functional obsolescence, and essentiality for public use, according to FHWA guidelines.
In May, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced a six-year improvement program for transportation that included $11.1 billion for highways and bridges – a $2.1 billion increase over the previous plan.
“We are focusing on reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges,” Martin said. “The majority of the money we get is being applied to that goal. Safety first, then additional capacity.”
Our analysis: Percent of bridges needing work