Future of bridge up in the air

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge remains closed after a charter bus far in excess of the span’s 2-ton weight limit crossed the national landmark. (Special to The Review)

WHEELING — Age has taken a toll on the 150-year-old Wheeling Suspension Bridge, and soon motorists could be paying a small toll to drive across it.

Another option could involve closing the historic span to motor traffic, and allowing only pedestrians and bicycles to cross, according to Mayor Glenn Elliott.

The bridge has been closed since June 29, when a charter bus exceeding the 2-ton weight limit drove across it and compromised its integrity.

Officials with the city of Wheeling and the West Virginia Division of Highways are set to meet Monday to determine the best course of action for the bridge, Elliott said.

“The City Manager and I are meeting with David Brabham, District 6 Engineer, on Monday at 1:30 p.m. to discuss the WVDOH’s latest findings and conclusions about the condition of the Suspension Bridge,” he said. “Following the meeting, we will also likely be walking the site to discuss various strategies for preventing larger vehicles from entering the bridge.

“After Monday’s meeting, I expect to know a lot more about the timeframe for re-opening the Bridge, as well as what WVDOH is willing to entertain so far as restricting bridge access is concerned.”

Adding toll booths to each side of the Bridge is one option that deserves consideration, according to Elliott. This would require every vehicle to stop before entering the bridge, and also provide an opportunity to limit the size of vehicles that can pass.

Most importantly, adding a toll would greatly reduce bridge use by out-of-town drivers relying on GPS navigation systems, he said. Typically a GPS system will not send a motorist on a toll road or bridge.

“In several of the incidents involving oversized vehicles, we have seen drivers simply relying on GPS and being guided over the Bridge,” Elliott said. “It is important to point out that the goal of adding a toll here is not to raise revenue. Rather, it is to limit bridge usage, and so the toll would not need to be very high to be effective.

“If WVDOH saw a toll as a way to also generate income for future Bridge maintenance, then that is another conversation to have. But that is not why I am advocating for a toll now. I simply want to keep the Bridge above the Ohio River and not in it.”

As to whether of not vehicle traffic should be banned on the bridge, that will depend very much on the engineering assessment by WVDOH, according to Elliott.

“My preference would be to keep the bridge open to limited vehicular access for generations to come,” he said. “What is critical, though, is re-designing access to the bridge in such a way that absolutely prevents the types of incidents we have seen with buses and oversized vehicles using it. If that cannot feasibly be done, we would need to look at options for limiting the bridge to pedestrian and bicycle use. But for me that’s a last resort, not a first option.”