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A bridge to somewhere: We all need them safe page 2
We can do little but trust in engineers and government officials to keep us safe

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Date published: 8/19/2007

By Richard Amrhine


But those decisions, whether around your house or around your state, are also based on financial reality. It is always cheaper to repair than replace, and cheaper still to ignore, especially if it's a matter of convenience or cosmetics rather than safety.

The Minneapolis disaster has raised questions about the condition of our area's bridges. According to Virginia Department of Transportation engineer Gary Shelor, the Falmouth Bridge, for example, scores a 5 on a zero-to-9 scale--9 being excellent condition. If it scored a 4, it would be considered structurally deficient. It is 64 years old, and Shelor said bridges generally have a life span of 50 to 75 years.

Shelor said the U.S. 1 bridge is eligible for replacement with federal funds--a project he estimates will cost $20 million--but there's no reason to pursue the project until a reconfiguration of the U.S. 17/Butler Road intersection is chosen.

In the meantime, the bridge will continue to handle nearly 10,000 more vehicles a day than the 20,000 it was built for, according to VDOT figures. And northbound motorists sitting on the bridge in traffic will feel the bridge quake as southbound cars and trucks pass by. Shelor says that's normal with any "continuous steel girder" bridge--you just don't feel it when you're driving along.

States differ in their scoring systems. Inspections in Minnesota, for example, take into account harsh winter weather conditions that we don't see in Virginia. Nevertheless, Minnesota also rates its bridges on a 0-9 scale. In 2005, the Interstate 35W bridge, which opened in 1967, received a 4 for its superstructure, a 5 for its deck, and a 6--one notch better than the Falmouth bridge rates now--for its substructure. Hmmm.

The reality is that no matter how safe and careful we're trying to be, unexpected events will continue to occur.

That's why I try to avoid sitting under the Charles Street railroad bridge when I wait at the Lafayette Boulevard stoplight. You probably recall stories about chunks of concrete falling from the 80-year-old structures that pass over Charles, Princess Anne, and Caroline streets. Officials insist that chunks of concrete don't mean a locomotive is soon to follow.

A $2.8 million repair project is due to begin this fall. To me, $2.8 million doesn't sound like much given the enormity of those bridges and the daily pounding they have taken and continue to take.

While we can do nothing but trust and accept the safety determinations made by transportation officials, failures like the Minneapolis bridge collapse put inspection practices and fatigue estimates in doubt. Maybe we'll learn the bridge failure was a rare, freak event. Or, perhaps serious flaws will be found in commonly used designs and materials.

In any event, if we truly acknowledge our dependence on safe bridges, tunnels, airports, dams, levees, and water and sewer systems, we'll take action sooner, rather than leave ourselves vulnerable.

Infrastructure may be boring, but we shouldn't let it bore us to death.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

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