When a bridge collapsed in W. Va.

December 15, 2013

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By William Lineberry and Jeannette Porter

The day was Dec. 15, 1967 – exactly 46 years ago. It was rush hour in Point Pleasant, W. Va. Thousands of cars crossed the Silver Bridge each day in this city that sits on the border with Ohio. But on this day, some of the cars that started across the Silver Bridge did not make it to the other side.

The bridge collapsed and killed 46 people, injuring dozens more. To this day, the accident is one of the worst bridge collapses in American history.

In the ensuing investigation, officials found that the Silver Bridge had a technical failure that caused it to essentially snap. The disaster prompted the federal government to launch the National Bridge Inspection Program. This program is intended to help inspect and monitor the health of the nation’s bridges.

Each bridge must be inspected at least every two years. Many are inspected more frequently because they’ve been deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Despite the inspections, bridge collapses still occur. The most recent collapse to cause fatalities claimed the lives of 13 people in Minneapolis.

The Interstate 35 West Bridge that ran across the Mississippi River collapsed just after rush hour in the Twin Cities area. The cause was that the vehicles on the bridge had exceeded the structure’s weight limit.

In May, a bridge collapsed in Washington State over the Skagit River – about an hour north of Seattle. No one died in the collapse, but some of the cars that were on the bridge during the collapse fell into the water below. The bridge had been designated as functionally obsolete and had a sufficiency rating of 57.

According to federal data, more than 150,000 American bridges – about 25 percent of all U.S. bridges – are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The number of obsolete and deficient bridges has stayed almost exactly the same over the last five years, according to an analysis of federal bridge data.

Some states have taken it upon themselves to address the problem of obsolete and deficient bridges. In 2011, the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, created a statewide initiative to pinpoint all deficient bridges and replace them by 2019. This initiative was made possible by allocating $15 million more annually toward bridge repair and maintenance.

With respect to the condition of bridges in the U.S., “the greatest problem is the lack of long-term vision and funding,” said Clark Barrineau, manager of state public relations for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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