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Business owner says he lost up to $125K due to bridge restriction false alarm

LANCASTER COUNTY, Va. -- Some Northern Neck residents are questioning The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) regarding its review of pins that help support the Robert O. Norris Bridge.

This comes after a three week weight restriction was imposed on the bridge that crosses the Rappahannock River and connects Middlesex and Lancaster counties.

VDOT had imposed a temporary 15-ton weight limit on the 60-year-old Bridge on Oct. 25, after an annual inspection identified potential abnormalities in two of the bridge’s pins, which help support the bridge beams and were installed in 2007.

That was lifted November 17 after VDOT performed further testing.

“We go from bad pins to good pins in three weeks hmm that’s interesting,” said business owner Malcom Ransone.

“Further analysis and testing by VDOT’s materials division and the agency’s Research Council identified the cause of the unexpected test results,” said Annette Adams, P.E., VDOT Fredericksburg District Structure and Bridge Engineer said. “Using a combination of additional ultrasound testing, X-ray testing and destructive testing, VDOT has determined that the pins are in good condition, and have no flaws or fractures. The pins will remain on the bridge.”

Adams apologized for inconvenience the limit caused for drivers and businesses over the past three weeks, but stressed that it was necessary after the initial inspection findings.

“I would say in the three week span we’re probably looking anywhere from $75,000 to $125,000 worth of work that we lost,” said Ransone.

That’s the revenue that the landscaping and tree service owner says he’s lost since October 25.

The weight limit prevented the majority of his fleet from crossing the bridge and the only option was an 85 mile detour.

“This weight limit was on there for a little over three weeks and all of a sudden on a Friday it’s lifted. What happened?” asked CBS 6 reporter Laura French.

“We realized that we needed to do additional testing of the two pins where we found the concern.” replied VDOT spokesperson Kelly Hannon.

“Since that date in October we have been working very urgently with our materials experts and structure experts here at VDOT to do some additional testing using ultrasound, using destructive testing, X-Ray testing to see if that concern was in fact founded,” said Hannon.

“When they tested this pin it was made of a different class of steel this material transmits sound waves a little more efficiently than metal in the rest of the bridge and it indicated there was an echo that indicated maybe there was a flaw,” Hannon added.

After testing VDOT determined its subcontractor used a higher frequency in the ultrasound testing of the pins which they say led to the false alarm.

“This was in fact the first year it happened but going forward we know we need to test at a lower setting,” said Hannon. “We are very confident there are no fractures, no flaws the pins are in good condition,” she added.

“I think VDOT does a great job taking care of the bridge and I’m really happy they check the pins every year,” said resident William Barnhardt. “I think it’s a fantastic thing to make sure nothing is wrong with it.”

But not everyone is convinced.

Ransone is worried about the more than 53,000 drivers like himself who cross this bridge every week.

“It even puts more doubt in my mind and a lot of other people of who’s right and who’s wrong,” said Ransone.

“What’s your response to having a third party come in to make people feel more comfortable?” asked French.

“We had multiple engineers working independently at multiple lab locations and I think they all found consistent findings,” replied Hannon.

“How confident are they that this bridge is safe?” asked French.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of people crossing and we were very confident in our findings that the pins could remain there,” replied Hannon.

VDOT says it was prepared to have the pins manufactured if further testing showed abnormalities, but that process had not started. The pins would have run up to $500,000.

“It was negligence on somebodies part who are you going to prove that did that, I don’t know, but it cost the taxpayers not only in this locality but the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Ransone.

“Fortunately all the internal work, additional testing, expertise of our staff was internal so there was no additional,” said Hannon.

Kelly Hannon

CBS 6 has learned that it did cost tax payers $16,000 for police enforcement of the restriction.

The pins will be reinspected next fall with the rest of the fracture critical elements of the bridge.

“Get something rolling on a new bridge stop putting a bandaid on the bridge we got,” said Ransone. “I’d like to see a bridge started tomorrow if possible.”

“Even if we started replacement of the bridge tomorrow there would still be maintenance in between,” said Hannon. “We do have a duty to maintain the bridge, keep it open and accessible to everyone throughout. There is maintenance work that has to be done.  All that work is necessary even as we explore replacing the existing structure,” she added.

“The maintenance work, the funds being put towards maintenance, really that work is needed now and couldn’t be diverted toward the new bridge and that work would have to take place anyway even if we were actively pursuing construction now,” said Hannon.

A full two lane bridge replacement was just recommended in a study released in October, but VDOT points out it would take 10 years, an estimated $258-million in 2017 dollars and would require a special funding source to replace it.

“We do understand there is intense interest in moving in that direction but at the same time we have to make sure a link between the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula can stay open while we explore that since there is no funding at this time to start a bridge replacement,” said Hannon.

“Now that a replacement has been recommended, who makes that decision, what kind of timetable can you give these folks as to when a decision might be made?” asked French.

“Has to be something decided at the state level what direction they would want to pursue that type of funding,” replied Hannon.

“So there’s really not a concrete answer as to when folks in that area would know when they’re getting a new bridge?” asked French.

“We don’t have any funding timeline or schedule at this point,” replied Hannon.

“Something we are doing on the project is we are working with the Coast Guard it would be a lowering of the vertical clearing sight for the new concept that’s recommended in the study,” said Hannon. “We’re doing some initial survey work which could be used if the project advances.”

“If special funding was allocated to this project, would it start right away?” asked French.

“Yes, we could then begin work very quickly,” said Hannon. “There would be extensive public involvement if it was pursued as a project.”

VDOT said if the bridge were to be replaced it would be build adjacent to the existing bridge so traffic would not be impacted.

The Norris Bridge is the same type of fracture-critical bridge as the I-35 bridge that failed in 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

After the collapse that killed 13 and injured 145, the weight limit on the Norris Bridge was reduced to three tons, two pins were replaced, and an additional protective system was installed.

VDOT performs an annual inspection of the bridge. The Norris Bridge is listed in “fair” condition getting a rating of 5 on a scale of 0-9. The Norris Bridge elements are rated as follows, Deck: 5; Superstructure: 5; Substructure: 5. Fair condition is defined by the National Bridge Inspection Standards as “all primary structural elements are sound but may have some minor section loss (due to corrosion), cracking, spalling (deterioration of concrete surface) or scour (erosion of soil).”

 

VDOT said if any one of these elements earns a “4” on the 0-9 scale during an inspection, defined as poor condition or lower, the bridge is then considered structurally deficient.

All bridges in Virginia are inspected at least once every two years, but the Norris Bridge has an annual inspection of all fracture critical elements, including the pins. The Norris Bridge last received a full inspection in October 2016, and the fracture critical inspection was performed Oct. 9-20, 2017.

Residents started a petition to put pressure on the governor to replace the bridge.

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