A 25-year anniversary passed largely unnoticed Monday evening. Around 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1994, the Robert C. Byrd Bridge opened to traffic.
The new four-lane bridge replaced an old two-lane bridge that had been inadequate for decades. All those years of heavy traffic and road salt forced the state’s hand in replacing it.
At the dedication ceremony a couple of hours before the bridge opened to traffic, then-Gov. Gaston Caperton declared the new bridge would be named the Robert C. Byrd Bridge. Byrd himself attended the ceremony.
The trend in bridge design when the Byrd bridge was built was to build a cable stay bridge similar to Huntington’s East End bridge, which opened in 1985. The Division of Highways advertised for construction bids for both a steel bridge and a cable stay design. Bids for a steel bridge came in significantly less, so that design was chosen.
The Byrd Bridge cost $32.6 million. West Virginia contributed $5.6 million and Ohio $1.4 million. The remaining $25.3 million came from an earmark of federal money that Byrd obtained.
“Some might foolishly call these efforts ‘pork,’” Byrd said in his dedication speech. “I call them the people’s business. And doing the people’s business is what government should be about.”
Byrd was known for bringing millions of dollars to West Virginia through the earmark process. Since that time, Congress has made the earmarking of funds for such projects more difficult.
Pointing to the rusting 6th Street Bridge upstream from the new one, Byrd noted the old bridge had a safety rating of 3 on the Federal Highway Administration’s 100-point scale.
Recalling the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse that killed 46 people, Byrd said the 6th Street Bridge was a “calamity waiting to happen.”
The bridge was originally scheduled to open around Thanksgiving, but the DoH found money so it could be completed a few weeks ahead of schedule — which happened to be a few days before Byrd stood for re-election.
Many local residents call the new bridge the 6th Street Bridge. Old habits are hard to break, and no matter what the sign says, if a lot of people don’t have to use a politician’s name, they won’t.
For a few years now, splotches of yellow have appeared on the bridge’s steelwork as the dark green paint has faded. Other than that, the bridge remains as safe and functional as the day it opened.
A new coat of paint would be nice, but West Virginia has highway needs that take priority over keeping a bridge looking nice. Just ask people who live on the state’s long-neglected secondary road system. Gov. Jim Justice’s commitment and follow-through to take care of the worst problems was a good start, but it was only a start. The state needs to commit to timely snow removal this winter and get back to pavement repair in spring and summer to bring the secondary roads back to acceptable condition.
A generation has grown up and had children without knowing firsthand the pain of crossing the old bridge. Or, before 1985, of seeing morning rush hour traffic on the Ohio side backed up past where the East End bridge is now.
Most of our big bridge needs here are met, although local people always have a wish list. A second bridge in the West End and perhaps one near the Merritts Creek connector would be welcome.
Still, the Byrd Bridge has served this region well, and with proper maintenance its life should exceed that of the old bridge it replaced.