WHEELING, W.Va. — Through the openings and closings of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge over the past three months, Mayor Glenn Elliott has reiterated his goal of doing whatever it takes to save the bridge.
Elliott told MetroNews on Tuesday while the decision by the state Department of Transportation to close the historic bridge that connects downtown and Wheeling Island to vehicular traffic for the foreseeable future was “concerning,” it’s the right move for right now.
“At the end of the day and I have said this to the DOH from day one, our number one goal has to be saving the bridge,” Elliott said. “It’s clear that even with the new barrier in place that they installed about a month ago, we weren’t able to keep some of the small trucks off the bridge that we had liked.”
On August 13, the bridge reopened following a six-week closure due to damage sustained from an overweight coach bus using it.
The state Division of Highways lowered the barriers on the bridge to 7 feet, 6 inches which are controlled by hard constraints. There remained a 2-ton, 4,000-pound, weight limit and law to maintain a 50’ minimum distance between vehicles, but Elliott said those were not being followed.
Secretary of Transportation Byrd White released a statement on Tuesday when it closed effective immediately.
“This is not something that we wanted to do. The whole reason we have the safety signs is because we wanted everyday motorists to be able to continue using this iconic and important bridge, while also stopping the heavier traffic that has caused structural damage in the past.
“Unfortunately, the operators of those heavier vehicles continue to ignore our restrictions. While the bridge is absolutely in safe condition now, we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to prevent future damage. Therefore, our only choice is to close the bridge to all motorists for the time being.”
The bridge, that is celebrating its 170th birthday in 2019, had its sway cables damaged on the Island side of the bridge in the June 29 incident. Elliott said one or two more overweight buses on the bridge currently could lead to a “catastrophic result.” The driver was cited being an overweight vehicle and failure to maintain a traffic control device after violating the two-ton weight limit, by around 10 tons.
Since that incident, Elliott, Wheeling Vice Mayor Chad Thalman and other city officials have viewed the damage with DOH and discussed plans for the bridge to protect it. Elliott and Thalman told MetroNews on Tuesday they would like the DOH to reconsider the ideas he brought to them in July which includes using toll booths to stray away GPS systems, looking at weight stations that will allow access onto the bridge, cameras, and even a lowered dangling bar.
One thing he does not want to see is the permanent closing of the bridge, in fear that it could go off the state funding grid by being a “casualty of a future budget decision.”
“I want to see the bridge stay open for vehicle use for as long as possible,” Elliott said. “I do think the more it is used by vehicles, the more it stays in the United States funding grid.”
Another concern to Elliott and residents on Wheeling Island is traffic. Work on dozens of bridges in the Ohio County and Wheeling area is set to begin in late 2020 and into 2021 that will shut down parts of Interstate-70 for months at a time. The Suspension Bridge and the Fort Henry Bridge that is scheduled to be worked on run parallel to each other, which could cause many residents taking long routes just to get to the other side Wheeling if the Suspension Bridge remains closed.
The DOH is currently working on a long-term rehabilitation plan to sustain the Suspension Bridge far into the future that could happen in 2021, per release. From that point, the DOH plans to make another determination on the bridge. For now, the bridge remains open to bicycles and pedestrians.
Elliott just wants to take whatever steps are necessary to keep the bridge in place.
“It’s one of the two national landmarks we have in the city of Wheeling. It’s a historical treasure, 170 years old and there is nothing like it,” he said.
“If it were to collapse and fail, it would never get rebuilt. We have to do whatever we can to keep it in place.”