Wasted gateway: How the City (mis)treats the Belmont Bridge
Few of today's college students were alive in 1986. That was the year the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and Ronald Reagan was president. That was also the last time the Belmont Bridge was painted.
Such a 26-year omission bolsters the view that Charlottesville has neglected one of its most prominent and valuable pieces of infrastructure, a vital gateway to downtown that city officials now want to destroy and replace for an amount estimated to top $14 million.
"There's no good that comes from that kind of neglect," says contractor and former City Council candidate Bob Fenwick. "It always costs you more if you don't maintain."
City engineer Tony Edwards, defending the replacement decision, estimates that launching a paint job might now cost more than a million dollars. With this bridge, which opened in 1962, reaching the end of its 50-year design life-span, he contends that replacement is the best option.
"We're trying to make repairs," says Edwards, "but you do eventually run out of life in these structures."
But could the Belmont Bridge have more life left in it? The much older Golden Gate Bridge (1937) and the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) seem to be going strong with regular maintenance, and Fenwick says that public works can far exceed their original design life when properly maintained. Fenwick says he has clambered over, under, and around the Belmont Bridge– and found a structure readily salvageable but currently neglected.
"It's not rocket science," says Fenwick, a seven-year veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers. "The city has professionals. That's their job, and they're just failing in that job."
The 26 years without a paint job is just one of the omissions revealed after a reporter's inquiries. Others include a failure to caulk (to prevent damaging water and ice from reaching structural components) and an unwillingness to fill cracking sidewalks. The latter situation culminated last year when, in a split vote, City Council spent $15,000 to fence pedestrians away from concrete cracks rather than executing repairs.
In 2003, the City took delivery of an engineering report that focused on ways to extend the life of the bridge. In 2010, the City took delivery of another report by the same engineering firm, MMM Design, whose lead local engineer has been telling city officials they should replace the bridge.
"Nowhere in either report did it say the bridge was in danger of failure," says Fenwick, who noticed something else. MMM is the same firm that subsequently won the six-figure contract to design a replacement bridge.
Sound familiar? Another local controversy raged after a private firm elevated replacement over repair. In 2003, the local waterworks began paying Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming to investigate ways to bolster the local supply. After portraying dredging the existing reservoir as too expensive, Gannett Fleming subsequently won a multimillion-dollar contract to design a new one. Before its ouster for insisting on a certain type of dam, the company reaped $3.9 million– without producing a single drop of additional water supply.
"This is Gannett Fleming all over again," says Fenwick. "It's outrageous."
Fenwick contends that the laws– or, at least, the officials– should ban such potential conflicts even though they don't appear to violate any state or city codes. City Manager Maurice Jones claims there's nothing wrong with the MMM relationship, which dates back about a decade and includes housing MMM's office in the City-owned Market Street Parking Deck and a million-dollar contract to oversee rebricking the Downtown Mall.
"We hired MMM after a thorough request-for-qualification process," says Jones in an email, noting that state procurement laws were followed and that the Virginia Department of Transportation, VDOT, the primary funder of the replacement bridge, hasn't raised any concerns.
"We chose MMM," Jones adds, "because they had the right mix of experience, engineering qualifications, and design capabilities."
Contacted for comment, MMM's lead engineer in Charlottesville says the City bars him from speaking with a reporter. However, an inquiry to the City finds that MMM received $1.15 million for its rebricking oversight, $320,000 for Belmont neighborhood planning, and another $1.1 million for "on-call" services that include annual bridge inspections. The $716,000 contract for designing a replacement bridge, not included in the above amounts, was executed in July 2010.
A reporter's investigation also finds that VDOT's Culpeper District has 182 bridges older than the Belmont Bridge and still carrying traffic on primary or interstate highways. Most of them, 122 bridges, have been rebuilt at some point; and yet the oldest, the 1919 structure still taking Lee Highway over a Culpeper County stream, remains unaltered with a "sufficiency rating" of 77.1 on a 1-100 scale.
The "sufficiency" scale, as VDOT readily points out, is a repair measure, not a safety measure. Across the state, VDOT has dozens of bridges measuring in just the single-digits on the sufficiency scale and yet still open for traffic. When VDOT finds that a bridge can't handle its original load, it posts weight-limit signs; when VDOT considers a bridge unsafe, it closes it. (As an indicator of how quickly sufficiency ratings can drop, the brand new Meadowcreek Parkway bridge over the Norfolk Southern train tracks, completed in 2010 but not formally opened until this year, gets a 92.9. )
The Hook investigation also examined the District's primary and interstate bridges built in the five years before the Belmont Bridge. Each structure– 11 structures with an average rating of 87– earns a higher repair rating than the Belmont Bridge. For instance, the 1961 bridge carrying Ivy Road over U.S. 29/250 Bypass holds a rating of 75.2. By contrast, the 1962 Belmont Bridge gets just a 47.6.
A key difference could stem from the fact that all others in that 1957-1961 vintage are maintained by VDOT, and Fenwick asserts that, at least in comparison with VDOT, Charlottesville mistreats its hardware. VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter declines comment on the ratings disparity, but he does note that as an independent city, Charlottesville holds wide latitude in choosing what to build and what to repair.
"The bridge is owned and maintained by the city," says Hatter, "so they're responsible for the inspections and pretty much everything having to do with it."
VDOT won't rate a bridge as "structurally deficient" unless one of its key components– deck, superstructure, or substructure– needs repair. In the case of the Belmont Bridge, the deck missed passing by just one point on a 10-point scale. Moreover, VDOT notes that a "structurally deficient" designation– something assigned to 99 of the 1007 bridges operating in the district– is not unsafe, and that the deficient bridges can usually get upgraded.
Evidence of one major upgrade will soon be felt just five miles east of the city in Shadwell. That's in Albemarle County where transportation infrastructure is controlled by VDOT. On May 1, VDOT plans to begin detouring thru traffic onto Interstate 64 to undertake a planned 10-week replacement of the decks of the four-lane, 15,000 vehicle-per-day bridge carrying U.S. 250 over the Buckingham Branch Railroad adjacent to Stone-Robinson School. Although shorter by half than the Belmont Bridge, the Shadwell structure gets a third more traffic than its fellow four-laner. The project to fix the structurally deficient bridge has already given it new piers and will also include new abutments. The total cost is $1.8 million. The bridge was built in 1939.
If the public thinks bridges suddenly fall down from poor maintenance, they're mistaken. America's most spectacular bridge failures have stemmed, instead, from design flaws. The 1967 Silver Bridge disaster, the eye-popping rolls of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and most recent biggie, the 2007 collapse of Interstate-35 in Minneapolis, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies, stemmed primarily from flawed work by the original engineers.
As for MMM, the firm is no stranger to controversy in Charlottesville. Several years ago, when the City found the mortar holding the brick surface of the Downtown Mall crumbling, some citizens– including award-winning auto-designer Oliver Kuttner [see sidebar]– urged a simple effort using trowels and mortar that might have cost less than half a million dollars. MMM's Joe Schinstock dismissed the idea as "putting a band-aid on a very sick person." MMM eventually convinced City Council to discard the old bricks for new ones at a cost of approximately $5 million.
Back in 2005, another MMM engineer recommended replacement of the Belmont Bridge because, the firm claimed, a brand new one would cost a maximum of $4.6 million, including a 20 percent allowance for cost-overruns. However, the latest estimate of $14.6 million more than triples that figure. While that engineer, Philip D. Quillin, has left MMM for another firm and declines comment, City engineer Edwards notes that prices tend to rise over time (an assertion some homeowners may wish to challenge).
City planning director Jim Tolbert, the official who's been briefing City Council, has recently indicated on his memos that replacing the Belmont Bridge has a budgetary impact of "none." There's a certain truth to that.
The City of Charlottesville receives transportation funds via various VDOT "urban allocation" formulas that produce several million dollars per year. While those funds are earmarked for transportation, city engineer Edwards confirms that the City largely gets to choose its priorities and also confirms that getting freed from spending $14.6 million for a single project could release a lot of money for other transportation projects in the City's official Six-Year Plan. After all, $14.6 million might buy a lot of roads, sidewalks, bike paths, and– as some have joked– maybe even limousine rides for deserving citizens.
Edwards also confirms that only those bridges that fall below 50 on the sufficiency scale become eligible for federal bridge replacement funds. Could the federal government be, perversely, rewarding neglect?
City records show that the last maintenance on the Belmont Bridge was the $210,077 spent in fiscal 2008 for concrete patches on the substructure including about $20,000 to install plywood to catch crumbling concrete from the deteriorating sidewalks. As for the repainting back in 1986, that job included repair of the expansion joints, a project that earned an Amherst contractor $130,261, according to a contemporary news account.
So how long could the Belmont Bridge last? Locally-based engineer Richard Lloyd, (who, like Fenwick, opposes a new reservoir), says repairs could safely provide "a multi-decade life extension."
With the southwest part of Charlottesville in transportation turmoil due to the year-plus construction effort to replace the much-smaller bridge carrying Jefferson Park Avenue over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, some Charlottesvillians might worry that replacing the Belmont Bridge could create more hometown havoc.
Fortunately, the Belmont Bridge is actually two separate structures, so traffic might be detoured onto one while rebuilding the other. Still, the devotion of $14-plus million for one project has gotten under Fenwick's skin.
Back when he was in engineering school, Fenwick remembers taking myriad design classes but can't recall getting offered a single class in repair. Similarly, in a recent push-back against the new dam, a mild-mannered Albemarle water manager noted that public officials (and engineers on the public payroll) tend to steer toward "new engineering monuments of concrete and steel."
Fenwick shares the view that less-glamorous maintenance can't compete with the gleam of a new structure which often rewards the designers and decision-makers by putting their names in bronze on a commemorative plaque.
"There's no commemorative plaque," sighs Fenwick, "that will go on a bridge for maintenance."