Battle brewing over building new bridge in Warren
The Warren SentinelWarren County resident Nancy Costello was baptized in the Shenandoah River in a quiet area of the county near the low-water bridge on Morgan Ford Road.
“It was beautiful,” Costello recalls of the day 30 years ago when she, her husband and children were baptized there.
Built in 1925, the one-lane bridge is scheduled to be replaced by the Virginia Department of Transportation with a $7.3 million two-lane bridge elevated seven feet above the river.
Like several people who own property near the bridge, Costello opposes replacing the aging structure, which VDOT officials say is beyond repair.
“We need a safe bridge. We need this one fixed, but we only need one lane. Traffic's bad enough,” Costello said.
The current bridge is 321-feet long. Possible advertisement for construction of the new 460-foot bridge is slated for the spring of 2016. VDOT is currently taking public comments on the bridge replacement project and will hold a citizen information meeting on the project from 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Warren Fire Department, 221 Commerce Ave., Front Royal.
Proponents of the new bridge cite safety concerns among the reasons the low-water bridge should be replaced.
In 2010, 21-year-old Stephens City resident Jessica Lynn Barr drowned when her car was swept into the river as she tried to cross the flooded bridge.
Gates have since been installed and the bridge is closed off when water levels rise. Warren County farmer Wayne Chatfield-Taylor, who opposes building the new bridge, said the gates will prevent another such tragedy.
Warren County Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Mabie said the gates have stopped drivers from crossing the bridge when it is flooded, but fire trucks and ambulances can't cross either.
“In the county, we only have to ways of getting across the river,” Mabie said.
To assist with a call in the southern part of the county, rescue workers and firefighters with the North Warren Fire Co. can cross the bridge on Morgan Ford Road, but if the bridge is closed, they must take U.S. 340/522 into Front Royal, which takes almost twice as long. That's a problem when they are responding to a fire and every second counts, Mabie said.
“There is a point when the fire doubles its size every minute,” said Mabie, who believes the low-water bridge should be replaced with an elevated bridge.
“The theory is, the new bridge would never warrant closing unless we had a catastrophic flood,” Mabie said.
Ron Tabor, a project manager with VDOT, said the current bridge does not meet federal or state regulations.
“Quite frankly, it would not take much for that bridge to be closed permanently,” Tabor said. “That deck, as soon as it's downgraded a little bit more, the bridge will have to be closed.”
Once they reach an age when replacment is necessary, all one-lane bridges in Virginia are being replaced with larger two lane-bridges, he said. Building a two-lane bridge the same height as the current bridge would cause an unacceptable elevation of the flood plain, which is why the new bridge will be seven feet above the water, Tabor said.
Opponents of the new bridge say the area by the low-water bridge is a favorite spot for fishermen and families seeking inexpensive outdoor fun on the weekends.
“Whole families come here on weekends in the summer because they don't have any other place to go,” Warren County resident Barbara Frank said. “No families are going to come and play under a high-speed elevated bridge.”
Farmer Adie von Gontard, whose property is located near the bridge, also opposes the proposed two-lane bridge.
“They want to make this a major corridor,” he said of county officials. “Neither VDOT nor the county will admit to that and I think they're being disingenuous.”
Warren County Supervisor Richard Traczyk, who supports VDOT's plans to replace the bridge, said construction of the new bridge is not intended as a way to encourage more traffic.
Rather, Traczyk said, traffic has increased from 300 trips a day over the bridge 30 years ago to 1,800 trips a day according to a recent VDOT traffic study.
Traffic is projected to continue increasing, Traczyk said, because of development in the Happy Creek and Shenandoah Farms areas, not because the new bridge will encourage it.
Contrary to what opponents believe, he said, large trucks will not be allowed to use the new bridge just as they can not use the current bridge. The speed limit will be 25 miles per hour.
“It's not going to create any more or any less traffic than it already does,” Traczyk said. “I support (building the new bridge) 100 percent and I think it needs to be done. There are 1,800 people that use that bridge daily that depend on that for transportation.”
Clarke County resident Sara Stern also opposes replacing the bridge and says repairing the current bridge is a better solution.
“I think there's so few of these types of bridges still around and I think they're so beautiful,” Stern said. “People come from far and wide to go across that bridge because of its historic nature.”
Replacing the bridge with a larger structure would invite more traffic into a rural area without the infrastructure to handle the changes, Stern said.
“It's steep, it's windy, it's hilly and it comes into a rural part of Clarke County,” she said of the area near the bridge.
Stern, who has several friends and family members who would be impacted by increased traffic in the area, called building a new bridge “a recipe for disaster.”
“This is truly a back-country lane that you're inviting truck traffic onto,” Stern said. “As it is now, only one car can go across. If you're in a hurry, you're not going to go that way.”
Chatfield-Taylor, whose farm is located at the northeast corner of the bridge, said there are many reasons the state should reconsider building the new bridge, which he believes will change the character of the neighborhood.
“It is also a conservation district of over 6,000 acres,” Chatfield-Taylor said, referring to a 6,000-acre conservation easement. “This is not the place to do this. There are just lots of things that would radically change.”
He has horses, cattle, chickens, and sometimes pigs on his farm, and grows grains, soybeans, some vegetables and fruit and produces hay and straw.
With so much agricultural land in the community, Chatfield-Taylor said, “its food value in the future will be huge.”
He says it would be much less expensive — about $1.5 million — to repair the existing bridge, but, he said, VDOT officials “don't even want to consider it.”
“All we're asking is, repair the bridge,” Chatfield-Taylor said.
Frank agrees, saying the new bridge will essentially become a bypass around Front Royal through an agricultural district.
“All of my neighbors who have farms are against this elevated two-lane, 24-7 bridge,” Frank said. “We want it to remain the tourist attraction that it is.”
Frank said members of the neighborhood have started a petition to have the aging bridge repaired instead of replaced.
“I'm just dismayed that VDOT has refused to listen to us,” Frank said. “They know there's a grassroots movement to stop them.”
What Frank opposes most is the increase in traffic she believes will result from the new bridge being constructed.
“We're not in love with a rotting piece of concrete. We want to save the character of the neighborhood, the rural landscape,” Frank said, “and this will place it in grave danger.”