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Future of Wheeling Suspension Bridge discussed

WHEELING — While Wheeling Island residents received some answers Friday evening at the Island Christian Church about the future of Wheeling’s historic Suspension Bridge, many questions still remain.

More than 75 people turned out as the Wheeling Island Community Association sponsored the town hall meeting with officials from the West Virginia Division of Highways as a way to start a proactive conversation about the future of the structure after it was closed indefinitely to vehicular traffic in September. Tony Clark, District 6 acting engineer for the DOH, began the meeting by telling the crowd, “I can’t promise the moon. I’m not going to, but I will do my best.”

He also tried to clear up misconceptions.

“There’s been some perception that with the bridge closed to vehicular traffic that it will be effectively off our system and will be allowed to sit and rot … and that’s not what’s going to happen,” he said. “We recognize, as the DOH, it is an important structure historically. … So with or without vehicular traffic it will definitely be maintained to the significant structure that it is. That being said, the rehabilitation schedule will be coming out.”

Clark couldn’t say for sure whether the span would ever be opened to vehicular traffic again. But he told the crowd that under the current plan, work on the structure is suppose to be contracted in the fall. He said the rehabilitation may not start until spring 2021, depending on the contractor’s schedule once it gets in their hands.

“However, with as old of a structure that it is, once we get in there it’s unknown the condition we’re going to find. So I can’t even say for you tonight whether the structure will reopen to vehicular traffic ever. I don’t know the answer to that. The ultimate goal is, we want to maintain the structure historically — maintain it as the symbol for Wheeling that it is,” he added.

Following the meeting, Clark said once the project begins it is expected to take approximately “two construction seasons” to complete. He said March through October is considered a construction season.

Clark emphasized to the crowd that even with the completion of the rehabilitation project, the weight limit for the span will not increase.

“There is nothing that can be done … to increase the weight limit of the structure,” he added. “So whenever this rehab project is complete, don’t think that the weight limit will be raised, that’s not the plan. It’s just going to be to stabilize what’s there and to maintain the structure.”

Deputy State Highway Engineer for Operations Greg Bailey echoed much of what Clark said to the crowd, stressing that the bridge means a lot to DOH officials.

“We consider it one of our main assets. We are committed to the structure,” he noted.

He said while DOH officials were in the process of trying to find a more concrete way to address height restrictions on the structure in the fall, in the process they encountered a number of “overloaded” vehicles using the span. He said it was around that same time that they encountered issues in the “vault” area of the bridge where the cables are anchored. He said it was following those incidents and revelations that the decision was made to close the bridge for the safety of those who use it. He said it would only take one of those overweight vehicles to “destroy this bridge.”

While the fate of the bridge as a route for vehicular traffic is still an unknown until a contractor can actually begin the project, Chad Robinson, program manager for the National Bridge Inspection Standard program for the state of West Virginia told the crowd that from what representatives have seen during recent bridge inspections, the structure needs to be closed to any type of vehicular traffic until a major renovation project is complete. But he said it is unclear if it will open to traffic in the future.

While some Wheeling Island residents expressed frustration during the meeting, West Virginia Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said he felt the meeting went very well.

“I think a lot of questions were answered. I think people had a chance to not only ask questions but to give their input and give their ideas,” Ihlenfeld commented.

Wheeling Island resident Stephanie Hall told DOH officials during the meeting that many residents have safety concerns not only about the closure of the bridge, but also about the ongoing traffic situation with the I-70 Bridges Project. The Fort Henry bridge and Interstate 70 leading up to it from both the east and west are reduced to one lane.

“The Fort Henry Bridge work complicates the situation. That’s why we are upset,” she said.

Following the meeting she said that while she still has many concerns following the closure of the Suspension Bridge, she believes at least some questions were answered.

When one resident asked if emergency vehicles could use the structure, DOH officials indicated that with the exception of large fire trucks, first responders are still able to use the structure in the event the need arises. They said that’s why they didn’t put concrete barriers in place at both ends.

It was in the fall when West Virginia Secretary of Transportation Byrd White said the bridge closure was expected to last at least a year following several closures last year. The bridge was first closed to vehicle traffic on June 29, when a Coach USA Lenzer bus exceeding the bridge’s 2-ton weight limit crossed the bridge, causing damage to the structure. While temporary hard barriers and reflective signage were installed at both entrances to the bridge to keep larger trucks and buses from crossing it, the DOH rejected Mayor Glenn Elliott’s request to reopen the structure in late October until a permanent solution could be developed. Elliott and 2nd Ward Councilman Ken Imer were also in attendance at Friday evening’s meeting.

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