Scenes of a major fire engulfing a busy highway are scary. Citizens put a vested confidence in our local government and an unwavering sense of reliance on the roads we drive every single day.
So when an elevated section of a major north-south highway near Atlanta collapsed in a massive fire last week, people in Virginia Beach, a region known for its bridges, could relate to the crisis.
After a brief sigh of relief — no injuries were reported — the natural response is to look toward our local authorities for reassurance that something similar won’t happen closer to home.
Are the many bridges and aging highways in Virginia safe?
Chris Eggleston, who has worked for the Virginia Department of Transportation for the past four years, had one simple answer to that question.
“Our highways and bridges are very safe and I’m 100 percent sure of that,” said Eggleston, a structure and bridge engineer, who oversees the Hampton Roads District.
“I drive these roads everyday with my family so I am very confident that all of our bridges are safe. People should not be concerned — we’re taking care of business.”
Of the nine transportation districts in the state, Eggleston says the Hampton Roads district is the second-busiest based on total traffic and only rivals the Northern Virginia district.
“In terms of the number of bridges and the size of bridges, we far exceed the other districts in Virginia,” he said. “The topography and different waterways we deal with in Hampton Roads really sets this region apart.”
It is home to the world’s largest naval base and is a summertime destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. In response to the many travelers the region hosts, VDOT maintains six major bridges and tunnels within Hampton Roads.
But what exactly happened in Atlanta when a section of the I-85 northbound highway collapsed last week is still coming to light.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that three suspects were taken into custody because of the fire and subsequent bridge collapse. One suspect was charged with arson, first-degree criminal damage to property and criminal trespass.
Atlanta Fire Chief Joel Baker said he was not sure what temperature is required to cause a bridge collapse, but the plastic materials stored under the bridge played a factor in the high temperature.
Even before those details were released, Eggleston said Virginia authorities were taking action. A few hours after scenes of the fire appeared on TV screens across America, inspection teams were sent out to look at what Eggleston described as ‘hot spots’ within the district.
“We were very concerned about what happened in Atlanta, and more importantly, the underlying cause of the collapse,” he said.
“We quickly learned that certain things stored under the bridge caught fire, which caused the collapse. In Virginia, we do not store anything under our bridges or overpasses. That’s not within our policy. So when we do our inspections, that is something we always check.”
According to its website, VDOT has an aggressive bridge inspection and safety program which goes beyond federal requirements. The agency inspects all of its 21,000 bridges and structures at least once every two years.
That means VDOT conducts between 11,000 and 12,000 bridge inspections each year with a 100-member staff dedicated to bridge inspection. Consultants are also brought in to augment the bridge inspection program.
After the Atlanta bridge collapse, Eggleston said inspection crews identified certain areas in the state near bridges where there was potential for storage of materials.
“We found a few things and we are currently addressing it,” he said.
Most of the ‘hot spots’ included areas where there is construction projects going on. Eggleston also mentioned a few situations that pertained to permit parking under bridges.
“But that’s on a case-by-case basis and they have permits,” he said. “It’s those who do not have permits that we have to worry about.”
In February, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association compiled a list of bridges in the U.S. that are structurally deficient, based on data from each state’s transportation department.
According to the report, 1,209 of Virginia’s 21,104 bridges were classified as structurally deficient or in need of major repairs. More than 3,400 bridges are classified as functionally obsolete, meaning they do not meet current design standards.
Even the VDOT website states that as much as 22 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, but Paula Miller, a spokesperson for the agency’s Hampton Roads district, said that does not mean they are too dangerous for drivers.
“Structurally deficient doesn’t mean they’re falling down,” she said. “It just means we’re monitoring those particular bridges.”
Miller and Eggleston stressed that safety is VDOT’s top priority and with summer travel about to heat up in Virginia, it’s their ultimate goal to make drivers feel comfortable on the roads.
“Behind Texas and North Carolina, Virginia is the country’s third largest highway system maintained exclusively by the state,” Eggleston said. “We are in charge of all the highway interstates and primary roads in Virginia as we take a lot of pride in that.
“I would say that the current state of our bridges and highways is very good. We have several mechanisms in place to promote safety, and that is our top objective.”