Hampton Roads' bridges are old and tired. What are we going to do about it?

Contact ReporterRmurphy@dailypress.com
Hampton Roads' bridges are old, sick and tired.

More than one-fifth of the 1,691 bridges in Hampton Roads are 50 years old or older, according to a Daily Press review of data from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Those 357 bridges range from the Warwick Boulevard bridge over Lake Maury, which carries 27,000 cars each day, to the Pope Swamp bridge in Isle of Wight County, which is used by fewer than 2,000 drivers each month.

Several bridges in the region's rural and suburban cities and counties have been in use since before FDR was first elected president in 1932.

Scores of bridges are considered "structurally deficient," which means they've received poor ratings during inspection. One half of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel has been officially listed as "structurally deficient" since 2007. Work has been going on there for years and is expected to be complete early this summer.

Bridges in the region have closed for safety reasons — the Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake was closed for years due to deterioration and a lack of funding for repair. The King's Highway Bridge in Suffolk was closed when it was deemed unsafe in 2005 and never reopened.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne says Hampton Roads is "the most infrastructure-dependent place on the East Coast," if not in the whole country, because of the region's reliance on bridges. But authorities haven't been able to keep up.

"We've been sliding for years," Layne said. "We're obviously not keeping up with them. … We let it go too long without people addressing it."

He and other VDOT officials maintain that the area's bridges are not unsafe, "but if we don't do something in a few years there's going to be more closures," Layne said.

In 2012, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization estimated that the region would need $8 billion over the next 25 years just to keep up existing bridges.

But that money isn't in anyone's budget.

Old and deficient

Using VDOT data, the Daily Press found that 357 bridges in the region — more than 21 percent — are 50 years old or older. An additional 27 percent — 458 bridges — will hit that mark within the next 10 years.

And while Hampton Roads is better off than other sections of the state — the median age of bridges in Hampton Roads is lower than in most comparable regions — the number of bridges tagged as "structurally deficient" is on the rise and the more bridges age, the more likely that number is to keep climbing.

In February, 81 bridges in the region were structurally deficient, according to the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization. That's up from 77 in 2012 and 54 in 2007.

"Structurally deficient" means at least one major component of the structure — the deck, the superstructure or substructure of a bridge, or the culvert itself — received a low rating on its most recent inspection. Bridge inspections are required at least every other year under normal circumstances.

Being tagged "deficient" doesn't mean a bridge is likely to collapse or is unsafe. The designation means the structure requires additional monitoring and is meant to make it a priority for rehabilitation or replacement.

Reports from the HRTPO and VDOT both argue that the rate of replacement of old and deficient bridges is not sufficient to keep up with long-term needs.

Plans to address some of the oldest and most deficient bridges in the region are in place, but the HRTPO said in 2012 that no funding had been earmarked to rehab or replace nearly three-quarters of the deficient bridges in Hampton Roads.

A crumbling bridge

The Darling Bridge in Downtown Hampton carries Bridge Street over Salter's Creek. It's Hampton's only structurally deficient bridge.

The tarnished placard set into the crumbling concrete guardrails says it was erected in 1934 under Mayor J.V. Bickford. The signs at either end of the bridge warn that trucks aren't allowed to cross and that the weight limit is six tons — a heavy-duty pickup truck can weigh that much.

Proposals to replace the bridge were floated in 2009, then postponed until 2014. Bids are set to go out this summer and construction is expected to begin sometime in the fall.

Local residents say they've been waiting.

Tom Martin lives right at the base of the bridge, his garage within spitting distance of the crumbling white concrete railings.

"It definitely needs to be redone," he said. Martin's wife, Brenda, said she regularly sees trucks drive over the bridge despite the warning signs.

Bridget Weinberg moved to Linden Avenue, around the corner from the bridge, a little more than a year ago and uses the bridge every day when she comes home.

She said she doesn't pay the bridge much mind on a daily basis, but after learning how old the bridge was and that it was due for replacement, she grimaced.

"That makes you think before you drive over it," she said. "Maybe I'll be taking Armistead (Avenue) home from now on."

The Darling Bridge is older than most bridges in the area but it's far from unique in its issues and need for repair.

A 672-foot-long bridge on Fort Eustis Boulevard spans the Newport News Reservoir between Interstate 64 and Route 60. It serves as a defense access route, allowing soldiers, civilians and contractors to get to and from Fort Eustis.

That bridge, built in 1960 and updated in 1985, carries more than 38,000 cars on an average day, according to VDOT. It was deemed structurally deficient in 2014 after an underwater inspection found concrete flaking and cracking had exposed reinforcing on the bottom of the support columns.

Newport News expects to have to replace the majority of the bridge, which could cost roughly $22 million.

Some bridges slated for repair or replacement in Newport News have undergone major work multiple times in the last few decades, including the Huntington Avenue Bridge over a Newport News Shipbuilding rail spur. That bridge was built in 1899 and updated in 1982 and 1994. It's ready for another overhaul.

Localities and VDOT are straining to keep up with the aging and deterioration of local bridges.

A handful of bridges bordering on structural deficiency in Hampton have been highlighted by city staff as structures in need of repair, but there's no plan to address them — including functionally obsolete bridges over New Market Creek, on Queen Street and on La Salle Avenue.

The constant battle

Chris Eggleston, VDOT's structure and bridge engineer for Hampton Roads, says keeping the region's bridges in working shape is a struggle.

"The reality is, there's going to be deterioration as things age. Traffic is constantly pounding some of these bridges," Eggleston said. "We're in a constant battle to maintain bridges and keep them in good condition but the reality is we have gone down a little bit in terms of our nonstructurally-deficient counts."

Though the region's infrastructure is aging, Eggleston said a regimen of preventative maintenance can extend the life of bridges and culverts to as long as twice the designated design life.

"That 50 year life span is sort of a misnomer … a theoretical type of number," he said. "It doesn't mean a bridge is going to be completely useless in 50 years. If we did no maintenance and let it sit there, that may be the case."

Deciding which bridges are replaced or repaired and which are put off comes down to priorities.

"The HRBT is a much bigger priority than a bridge on a secondary road out in the county," Eggleston said. "It's a balancing act between how much maintenance do we do on a structure or when we decide the bang for the buck is gone for maintenance and we really need to be looking at total replacement."

It's not that rural bridges aren't maintained and monitored, he said, but the volume of traffic and importance of some of the region's larger bridges means they take more of the maintenance pot.

Gloucester, James City and Isle of Wight counties have a higher incidence of older and deficient bridges than much of the region. Plans are in place to address many of the worst bridges in those areas in coming years, but Eggleston concedes that it gets tougher to manage year after year.

Full construction plans and funding obviously aren't available for every bridge, Eggleston said, but VDOT has tentative proposals to address many bridges that could be considered candidates for rehabilitation or replacement.

"We have shelf plans — basically these bridges are ready to go as soon as the money comes through, where if there's other money available we can jump on that," he said.

For example, VDOT hopes to rehab the movable deck on the James River Bridge and the spans leading up to it, Eggleston said, but the project doesn't appear in the state's six-year plan and no funding is earmarked. The JRB borders on structural deficiency, according to ratings from VDOT inspections.

Newport News engineer John Kaoudis says there is an intensive program in place to address aging and ailing bridges in the city — eight major bridge projects are scheduled in Newport News through 2021.

But by the time those projects are done, another 20 of Newport News' 97 bridges and culverts will be older than 50 years, including several spans of I-64.

The challenge is not identifying what needs to be done, Kaoudis said, but how to pay for it.

"Without state and federal funding, it's not doable for cities. We need to have supporting dollars on that magnitude to get it done," he said.

Rules governing those funds can cause complications and delays, he said. It can take up to five years from when city engineers decide that a bridge needs work to the time when that work is done, Kaoudis said.

Laurie Simmons, the regional spokeswoman for VDOT, points out that the need to keep aging bridges going also inhibits progress on new projects.

"We have pots of money for new construction, but most of the HRTPO money is for maintenance," she said. "That's the issue because they want to build so much new stuff but so much has to go to maintain the infrastructure."

Squeezing out every extra dollar and never leaving anything on the table have become priorities for VDOT's planning office.

Simmons said the agency works to use every cent allocated from the federal government and to have plans ready in case more federal money becomes available. She said other states that don't completely use their federal allotments sometimes have to return unused money, which VDOT jumps on for queued-up projects.

She said ongoing pavement work on I-64 and I-264 on the Southside and waterproofing bridge spans on the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel are being financed by some of those overflow funds, what VDOT calls "bonus money."

And still, state and regional agencies say projected funds don't meet the forecast needs.

Funding failures and future hopes

Officials say not to worry — any bridge that would pose a hazard would be closed and there isn't a span in Hampton Roads that's unsafe to drive over.

But reports going back for years sound the alarm that the region and the state won't be able to keep up with a rapidly aging and degrading bridge system. Long-range forecasts warn that without a major boost in funding, the cost of simply maintaining what we have in Hampton Roads will outpace the available dollars.

The HRTPO's 2012 bridge study says that through 2040, it would cost more than $8 billion to sustain existing bridge connections in the region. That's more money than the combined cost of every construction project — including road widenings, new roads, train stations and bridge projects — in the long-term plan that extended through 2034.

VDOT's State of Structures and Bridges report from July 2014 says a continued lack of funding will cripple the state's ability to maintain and build bridges and there isn't enough money to keep up with repairs on a rolling basis.

It says that while the percentage of deficient structures has declined statewide, the overall condition of bridges in the state has worsened.

"This slow decrease in overall condition ratings can primarily be attributed to the gap between required and available funding. Allocated funds are often used to address structures in immediate need of repair or replacement, leaving less money than required for preventive and restorative maintenance," the report says.

The transportation funding bill passed in 2013 aimed at bringing in additional revenue for infrastructure doesn't seem to have filled the gaps.

The bill gave Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regional taxing powers to fund transportation projects and changed a decades-old gas tax from a flat rate to a percentage in an effort to capitalize on higher gas prices. That's backfired as the price of gas has dropped, leaving gas tax revenues much lower than projected.

Transportation Secretary Layne said in February that the lagging revenue likely means the state will only hit about 75 percent of the $4 billion it had expected to bring in by 2020.

Hampton Roads has fared even worse. Last year, the region brought in about 60 percent of the $62 million projected for fiscal year 2014. There is little to indicate things will improve in fiscal year 2015. Hampton Roads earned $23 million in the first half of the year from the gas tax — less than a third of the $71.4 million originally projected for the year.

Layne said legislation passed during this year's General Assembly session that changes the allocation of funding to ensure more transportation dollars to maintain a "state of good repair" offers hope that the bridge inventory can be kept healthy.

"That's the amount of money to be put in each year that can stop the declines and start creeping back up to what's acceptable," Layne said.

Layne also said Hampton Roads is going to have to "come to grips" with the need to handle maintenance before looking to add new capacity — and he said the best way is likely to start using more tolling solutions for new construction.

The state gets about $1 billion each year from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for road construction and repair, but that figure has been declining nationwide for years.

Interim HRTPO director Camilia Ravanbakht said the best way to make up ground on the region's infrastructural needs is for the federal government to step up.

"(Federal roads funding) hasn't been able to keep pace with inflation. We believe it's time for Congress to take some action," Ravanbakht said. At the federal level, a short-tem transportation funding measure is set to expire at the end of May — something that's been a thorn in the side of transportation advocates seeking a long-term solution.

Ravanbakht said she's optimistic that Congress will come up with a long-term plan that beefs up funding to help cover the shortfall the HRTPO and VDOT have projected.

But where that money might come from is anybody's guess.

Murphy can be reached by phone at 757-247-4760.

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