12 INVESTIGATES: VDOT road sign inspections

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - They tower above, silently leading the way to your destination.

And during that daily commute, the last thing you'd expect is a 2,000 pound sign and pole crashing down right in front of you!

The mangled metal is a cantilever sign from I-95 in Prince George. It collapsed onto the road in January.

Less than a month later, it happened again on I-66 in Northern Virginia. A 30-foot high sign toppled onto the road striking a passing pick-up truck. No one was injured in either instance, but it sure got V-DOT's attention.

"We were concerned that if one could fall, there may be others that we needed to find immediately," said Tom Lester. He's in charge of structure and bridge safety for the Virginia Department of Transportation's Richmond District. He said both signs fell on extremely windy days and in both cases, the anchor bolts failed.

The most critical part of the sign is its base. The Anchor bolts go deep into the ground and hold a sign in place.

VDOT has sent the anchor bolts from the two failed signs to a lab for testing. The agency is trying to determine what exactly went wrong — the results are not back yet.

VDOT also went on a statewide campaign to double and triple check the anchor bolts on every sign.

Through an open-records request, NBC12 obtained the results of that testing for the Richmond district. Of the 403 signs reviewed, six had faulty anchor bolts and were immediately taken down.

According to the report, 29% of the signs tested were listed in good overall condition. That's only one in four of every cantilever sign along the roads. The rest had corrosion and other problems stemming from old age. There are nearly a thousand signs up in the Richmond district. The cantilevers are the signs you see that span half the interstate. The butterflies go all the way across. There are 105 high mast poles and 156 bridge parapets (the signs mounted on a bridge).

There's no federal mandate to inspect any of these signs once they go up. V-DOT decided to do inspections once every five years.

"Generally they'll come out and measure to see the height from the bottom of the plate," said Lester.

Inspectors make sure there's no brush growing or cracks on the base. They look for corrosion, but again, the anchor bolts are the key.

"You'll hear a nice ringing sound to it. It's in good shape. It's not lose or anything," said Lester as he was testing an anchor bolt.

We traveled with Lester to several signs around Colonial Heights and Chesterfield. We also asked and were given access to hundreds of sign inspection reports for the Richmond district. We came across recent inspections that note cracking pedestals, heavy rust and corrosion. One sign had electrical tape holding up the hand hold cover. Other signs were missing nuts, even bolts at major connection points. Much of this is standard wear and tear with age.

But, in those reports multiple signs had "critical errors" over the years... mainly dealing with anchor bolts that needed immediate attention.

VDOT said those problems — once discovered — are fixed right away.

"Thousands of vehicles a day, my wife and children go under these signs and if there's any concern then we move swiftly to correct the problem or remove the structure," said VDOT's regional maintenance manager.

VDOT is now considering bumping up its inspections from once every five years to once every four. The agency is even considering inspecting older signs once every two years.

VDOT is also in the processing of taking down all of those bridge parapet signs. You won't see any bridges in Virginia holding up signs in about a year.

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