Infrastructure: Maintaining bridges should be a priority

Reports about bridges and dams in dire need of repair need to be taken with a grain of salt, as the officials responsible for maintaining them remind us. Still, some of them raise disturbing questions.

A new report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association notes that nearly one in five of the highway bridges in West Virginia is “structurally deficient.” That is a total of 1,444 bridges in our state.

Leaving aside the fact that expensive contracts to repair or replace bridges are good for ARTB members, state Department of Transportation communications director Brent Walker reminds us “structurally deficient” does not translate to “unsafe.” Often, it means only that bridges require load limit signs to keep extra-heavy trucks off them.

“We would not put cars on a bridge that is not safe,” Walker told The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. Of course not.

Walker points out that under Gov. Jim Justice’s “Roads to Prosperity” initiative, 77 bridges are scheduled to be replaced. And, according to the ARTB report, there are proposals for work on 3,637 bridges in West Virginia.

What is most unsettling about the report is that during the past five years, the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state has increased by 522. West Virginia has the second-largest percentage of structurally deficient bridges as a percentage of the total number in the country. Only Rhode Island is worse.

In other words, the overall condition of highway bridges in West Virginia is getting worse, not better.

That may be the last thing state officials, scrambling to find enough money to repair secondary roads throughout West Virginia, want to hear. It certainly is not reassuring to taxpayers.

But the bottom line is that we need to do a better job of maintaining the bridges we have, or some, perhaps on heavily traveled roads, may have to be closed.