How good are Virginia bridges? Stay calm and keep driving.
There are more than 230 million licensed drivers in the U.S. They cross nearly 620,000 bridges on a regular basis. That’s a lot of wear and tear.
Data compiled by the Federal Highway Association and analyzed by a trade association for transportation builders shows that just under 7% of the nation’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient.”
So it’s no surprise that infrastructure is often cited as one of the major areas of concern facing the country. Nearly three-quarters of Americans told the Pew Research Center in 2021 that the condition of America’s roads and bridges was a “very big” or “moderately big” problem.
In light of that, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law in November 2021, setting aside $110 billion to repair and replace bridges and roadways — including nearly $540 million for Virginia projects over a five-year span, $18 million of which is going to replace the bridge that carries Richmond’sArthur Ashe Boulevard over railroad tracks near The Diamond.mOn average, the commonwealth’s bridges are in relatively good condition.
Of Virginia’s 14,042 bridges, 501 are considered structurally deficient, a 3.6% rate that is one of the 10 lowest among the 50 states and District of Columbia. On top of that, conditions are improving; there were nearly 150 more bridges graded as deficient in 2018 than in 2022.
But that does not mean that every bridge is in brand-new shape. Of the 20 most-traveled structurally deficient bridges in Virginia, one is in the Lynchburg area:
Candlers Mountain Road over U.S. 29 business
Year built: 1959
Crossings per day (2020): 35,000
Inspections every two yearsCalling a bridge structurally deficient does not mean that it’s unsafe for daily driving, VDOT engineer Craig Ponte said.
VDOT conducts “hands-on inspections” of bridges every 24 months, with a focus on three major components: the deck, which the surface that cars actually drive on; the superstructure, made up of the horizontal beams and other elements that bear the weight placed on the deck; and the substructure, foundational elements like columns and abutments that connect a bridge to the ground below.
Those components are rated on a scale from 0 to 9 at each inspection. If any of the major components is rated 4 or below, it is deemed to be in poor condition, which automatically flags that bridge for inspection every 12 months and places it on a priority list for repair or replacement, according to Ponte.
But only ratings of 3 or below indicate a risk of component failure, according to VDOT’s grading standards, and a component must be rated a 2 before the guidelines suggest closing a bridge.
FHWA data shows that just five of the 14,042 bridges in Virginia were rated 2 or worse for any of the three key components in the most recently released data, gathered in 2021, and only one of those was in the Richmond area: the St. Andrews Street Bridge in Petersburg, which reopened in November after being closed for 15 years.
That’s part of the reason VDOT is phasing out the “structurally deficient” terminology in favor of simply calling bridges poor, Ponte said. It connotes a risk of imminent collapse that, in many cases, just isn’t there.
Ponte told The Times-Dispatch that when concerns arise about the amount of weight that a bridge can support, VDOT lowers the top allowable weight on that bridge — preventing the heaviest trucks from crossing — before taking measures that could affect everyday drivers.
What’s on the docket?
Bridges built under old design standards typically last about 30 years before they start to need repairs, Ponte said. Much of the deterioration in that time period is caused by water and the salts used to de-ice roads during winter weather conditions seeping into bridge components through the joints — gaps where the ends of bridges meet ground level, which exist to accommodate thermal expansion or contraction of bridge materials.
But VDOT is using new jointless design methods for all new construction, and even some current repair projects, that will more than double the life of Virginia’s bridges.
“The design life for new bridges is 75 years,” Ponte said. “It’s pretty cool.”
The heavier the traffic on the bridge, the higher priority it’s given for repairs. Ponte said VDOT aims for a maximum window of six years before a bridge gets the repairs it needs — a figure that varies based on the level of funding available to the agency — but that at the top, things “can move pretty quickly, with (as little as) a couple of years before repairs are complete.”
‘Easier to weather’
The state of bridges impacts more than daily commutes, family drives and road trips. It has a direct impact on the economy and businesses.
Ari Augenbaum, executive chef and co-owner of JewFro, a Jewish African fusion restaurant in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom just a few blocks from where Broad Street crosses over I-95, has spent plenty of time thinking about construction and development projects. But he isn’t particularly worried about a future bridge construction project having major negative effects for the restaurant.
“We’re more of a destination restaurant,” Augenbaum said. “So people are seeking us out, which makes it easier to weather things like that.”
However, that feeling doesn’t necessarily extend to the other restaurants he co-owns, like the North 2nd Street location of Soul Taco, which transitioned into Sear Burger in late 2022.
It was “exponentially more difficult” to keep business strong through construction in Jackson Ward, Augenbaum said, and that location also faced significant obstacles from the ongoing saga surrounding the redevelopment of the Richmond Coliseum area.
But Augenbaum said that was a natural risk of committing to a location based on the expectation that one of the city’s signature development plans was going to move forward quickly — a risk that has touched JewFro as well. Coffee and happy hour concepts designed around a planned expansion of Richmond-to-Washington commuter rail transit out of Main Street Station have yet to get off the ground at the Shockoe Bottom restaurant.
Other organizations located near poorly-rated bridges say that there could be some impact if there were to be significant construction projects nearby, but also believed that such projects would not cause a major hit to day-to-day operations.
PARK365, an inclusive park located off of Westwood Avenue near the I-195 crossing, accommodates many patrons with disabilities or sensory issues that might be adversely affected by the commotion of a major construction project. Andrea Siebentritt, communications and public relations manager for the park’s nonprofit parent organization, SOAR365, said that the group would have to consider creative ways to mitigate noise pollution and other negative effects, but that construction on the bridge would not cut off access to the park.
Ponte said that VDOT generally replaces bridges in stages in order to keep traffic patterns as unaffected as possible. But concerns that local business owners have about the impact of construction projects are something that VDOT thinks about on a broader scale, rather than considering the effect on individual businesses.
“That’s kind of outside of my area of expertise,” he said. “But when we’re setting up these design projects, we do want to keep traffic (moving) through the area.”
Sean McGoey (804) 649-6012
@SeanMcGoey on Twitter