ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Fred Bennett remembers when the Sand Hill Road bridge in Neffs collapsed into McMahon Creek in 1978 because a cement mixer truck driver did not obey the posted weight limit.
"The loaded truck weighed about 28 tons. The bridge had a posted limit of only 8 tons, but they tried to cross anyway," said Bennett, Belmont County engineer.
Now, Bennett said 80 of the 279 county and township road bridges throughout Belmont County are so structurally deficient and/or obsolete that they have posted weight limits. The limits range from as low as 4 tons to as high as 32 tons.
Photo by Casey Junkins
Belmont County Engineer Fred Bennett said about 80 bridges on county and township roads have posted weight limits because they are structurally deficient.
"We have always had bad bridges, but the situation is worse now," he said. "A lot of them are made of steel that has rusted. We built a lot of bridges back in the 1980s with used beams, so they were already wearing out at the time they were built."
Bennett said 35 of the 80 bridges with weight limits cannot safely accommodate a school bus loaded with children, which he said weighs about 16 tons.
"When the buses can't cross, either the kids have to walk the rest of the way or their mom or dad has to drive them to where the bus can pick them up," he said.
According to the map Bennett provided, a substantial number of deficient bridges are located in the northeastern quadrant of the county, including several in Richland, Pultney, Pease and Colerain townships. Many of these are located along Belmont County Road 4, which is known locally, depending upon its terminals, as Barton Road, Willow Grove Road, Sand Hill Road and Colerain-Martins Ferry Road.
Other roads with significant numbers of deficient spans include Belmont County Roads 5, 10, 54, 56 and 72.
Serving as the county's engineer since 1976, Bennett knows money is always the main obstacle when trying to replace or repair deficient bridges. Recently, he tried to convince county Commissioners Ginny Favede, Chuck Probst and Matt Coffland to increase the annual vehicle registration fee for county residents by $10 each - a move he said would generate an extra $500,000 annually to help fund bridge and road repair.
However, Favede and Probst outvoted Coffland, 2-1, turning down the proposal amid uproar from some concerned residents during the meeting at which they voted.
Bennett said each registration would have cost an additional 83 cents monthly, or about 3 cents per day. The current annual fee for passenger vehicles ranges from $39.50 to $49.50, depending on the taxing district where the vehicle is registered.
Favede pointed out during the meeting that some of the oil and gas drilling companies working in the area have agreed to pave the roads they are using, which she said will help the county's road problems.
Bennett agreed that some of the drillers are helping out with road paving, but he said hauling many loads of water and sand needed for fracking a well can take quite a toll on the roads and bridges.
"They may have legal loads when they are crossing the bridges, but even with legal loads, when they have repetitive loads, the damage adds up," said Bennett.
He noted that if a bridge has a posted limit of 28 tons, vehicles can cross it as long as they do not exceed that weight. However, he said small, narrow county roads and bridges were never designed to accommodate the large sand and water trucks used by the gas drillers.
"We keep an eye on them as best we can," Bennett said.
Bennett added that his regular annual budget is about $4.9 million, out of which he must pay his employees and run his whole department. He said the regular budget allows his workers to rebuild 10-15 county bridges annually.
"When I started here, we had 96 employees," he said, noting he now has to cover the same amount of roadways with only 40 employees. "The population goes down a little bit, but we still have all the same roads to cover."
Bennett said he applies for as many state and federal grants as he can to help with road repair. Otherwise, he has to work within the framework of the budget, which he said comes entirely from vehicle registrations and gasoline taxes.
"We just do the best we can with what we have," he said. "It is a problem that is not going away anytime soon."