The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 22, 2012

Structural issues plague Prince bridge

DOT aware of problems

A Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesman says the agency knows that the Prince bridge is on its last legs, and though environmental studies and engineering reports are in the works, so far no funding source has been identified for a replacement.

Brent Walker of the DOT says the Thomas Buford Pugh Memorial Bridge, built in 1931, suffers from old age, rust, and a cracked steel beam.

After inspections last summer picked up the problems, the DOT reduced the bridge’s weight limit from 15 tons to 3. Soon after, beams were placed at the ends to limit the height of vehicles on the bridge to 9 feet.

“It’s an old bridge that has quickly deteriorated,” says Walker. “One of the ways we continue to keep old bridges in use is to reduce the weight limit.”

But Walker says if the bridge becomes unsafe, even at the reduced limit, it will be closed.

“Anything under 3 tons is going to be closed,” he says.

“We’re keeping our eyes on it. And on a parallel track, we’re certainly taking a look at what needs to happen in order to maybe build a new bridge,” says Walker.

“We’re actively working to keep the structure open to traffic until we can get together a design of the bridge, and until some environmental studies are finalized, but we don’t have a timeline for that. They do take some time because of the nature of crossing the New River.”

Because of the bridge’s location in the New River Gorge National River, the National Park Service is part of the conversation as well.

Walker says some concerns over endangered mussels on the river bottom will have to be taken into account during design and construction.

In the meantime, Walker says the DOT came to an agreement with local emergency services personnel to allow them to violate the weight limit in case of extreme emergencies.

A public meeting in Prince will likely be held in February to discuss the possible closure and make sure the affected communities understand what’s going on, says Walker. A finalized date for the meeting has not yet been announced. Internal meetings at the DOT on the situation continue.

The Thomas Buford Pugh Memorial Bridge is a 734-foot truss bridge that connects Raleigh to Fayette County along W.Va. 41. Bridgehunter.com, a database of notable bridges, reports an average daily traffic of 950 vehicles as of 2006.

Closing the bridge would increase the commute of some Fayette County residents traveling to Beckley by as much as an hour during heavy traffic. The 12-mile trip from Prince to downtown Beckley would increase by 35 miles.

Tina Fox, a resident of Danese, says she is most concerned about access to medical care for the elderly residents of Prince. She also says it will affect people’s ability to work.

“There are several people that work minimum wage jobs in Beckley. If they have to drive all the way around and go (Interstate) 64, it will be 50 miles to Beckley. It wouldn’t be economical for them to keep their job and have to travel that far,” she says.

She says until the reduced limit went into effect, tractor-trailers loaded with steel crossed the bridge on their way to a local business, Bowyer Mine Supply in Layland. Those trucks can no longer cross the bridge.

“(The owner) says it’s killing his business,” says Fox.

“I know there are some trucks there that are affected by nine-foot height restriction,” says Walker. “But these aren’t things we can roll the dice with.

“We’re sensitive to the importance that route holds for folks between Fayette and Raleigh County for sure,” he says.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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