NORTHERN NECK, Va. -- There are two ways to cross the Rappahannock River into the Northern Neck; one involves a boat and the other involves a bridge that now has a weight limit that residents say is cutting into their bottom line.
The Virginia Department of Transportation imposed a temporary 15-ton weight limit on the Robert O. Norris Bridge on October 25, after an annual inspection identified potential abnormalities in two of the bridge’s pins, which help support the bridge beams.
“Our staff are taking all steps possible to accelerate this pin replacement, as we know the 15-ton weight restriction is affecting numerous businesses and individuals in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula communities,” said VDOT spokesperson Kelly Hannon in a statement after the announcement. “We will announce specific replacement dates as soon as they are available, but at this time, our best estimate is that it may take up to 30 days to manufacture the parts needed for these specific pin locations on Norris Bridge. These parts are manufactured specifically for this location and its dimensions.”
“You get on there with the log truck and you go like this and then like this and it’s scary especially in these trucks.” said business owner Malcom Ransone.
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.
“That’s the gateway to Lancaster county,” said Ransone.
A gateway, Ransom and others depend on to make a living.
He says 85 percent of his landscaping and tree business’ fleet of vehicles haven’t been permitted on the 60-year-old steel truss bridge.
“Makes me real sad, all because of a bridge,” said Ransone. “We loose anywhere from 10 to $15,000 a week.”
Thousands of dollars he says he’s losing because he can’t make it to jobs efficiently.
“We’re limited, there’s only so much work in the Northern Neck,” added Ransone.
The Virginia State Police is enforcing the temporary weight limit and detouring non-compliant vehicles 85 miles around the bridge. The trip usually takes 1.8 miles.
“Money, dollar bills, costing twice the amount of money to go around 85 miles,” said Ransone. “You can’t make any profit having to drive 85 miles. Grass seed just went up 15 cent a pound just because the way they had to come in.”
Propane delivery driver Tom Jones can’t make it across the bridge either. He’s concerned for his community and the consumer.
“These people depend on getting their products, food and fuel. If they have to make that much of a detour it’s really going to shoot prices up and be detrimental to everything that goes on in this small county,” said Jones.
“We know the current reduction is adding significant travel time for heavier-weight vehicles and is affecting numerous businesses and residents,” said Hannon. “We sincerely regret this inconvenience, as we know the reduction was unexpected and is affecting people’s daily travel. But inspecting these critical elements is our responsibility as the agency charged with ensuring this bridge remains safe and open for travel,” she added. “This has to be our leading priority, and we have a duty to take the steps needed to protect travelers and maintain this connection between the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.”
Business owners acknowledge safety must come first for the more than 53,000 people who cross Norris bridge every week, but feel the Commonwealth should have taken other action years ago.
“If they’d started 10 years ago doing some repair work instead of spending 42 million to paint it, and had a bird up there this spring and spent a million to save the bird with a net, it don’t make sense, my tax dollars are not being used to the fullest,” said Ransone. “I think it’s negligence on the Commonwealth of Virginia right on up to the governor that they haven’t even tried to do anything.”
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 says 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.
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.
VDOT says they are committed to keeping it safe and well maintained while researching funding solutions.
Residents started a petition to put pressure on the governor to replace the bridge.
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