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Artz Road bridge may stay one-lane, flood-prone

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A pickup and an SUV drive across the one-lane, low-water bridge on Artz Road northeast of Woodstock on Wednesday. The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to replace the aging bridge with one featuring a guardrail but agency officials say low traffic and environmental restrictions prohibit raising the crossing or widening it to two lanes. Alex Bridges/Daily

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- Strict rules on bridges in flood-prone areas could impact plans to replace one of Shenandoah County's many low-water spans.

The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday received an update from the Virginia Department of Transportation regarding a project to replace the low-water bridge on Artz Road (Va. 663). The 300-foot-long, one-lane bridge built in 1922 spans the North Fork of the Shenandoah River northeast of Woodstock.

More than a dozen residents live along Artz Road and traffic eventually connects to Old Valley Pike (U.S. 11).

The project remains in its early stages and Edwin Z. "Ed" Carter, VDOT assistant residency administrator from Edinburg, told supervisors the agency still awaits more design details and survey results. But indications from transportation officials and designers show the bridge likely would remain at its current elevation and could stay a one-lane span given the few vehicles that use it each day.

VDOT estimates a two-lane replacement for the federally-funded bridge with the required guard rails would cost approximately $2.23 million.

A one-lane version of the bridge would cost approximately $1.7 million, Carter said. The project is federally funded. VDOT anticipates holding the required public hearing on the project in the spring of 2013 and then would advertise for contractors in 2015, Carter said.

VDOT sought input from supervisors on whether the agency should design the bridge to support one or two lanes. Most supervisors who did comment on the plan expressed greater concern on raising the bridge to alleviate wash-outs rather than the width of the span.

"But there are some hydraulic issues, some possible environmental issues and some financial issues in terms of savings that may make it more advantageous to be a one-lane structure," Carter said.

The existing bridge, approximately 16-feet wide, has no railings and succumbs to high water several times a year, according Joe Schinstock, of MMM Design Group. Criteria for bridges require the replacement has railing on either side of the bridge, Schinstock said. By adding railings the area of the bridge over the stream increases, he added. This increased size could potentially impact the floodplain upstream of the bridge, according to Schinstock.

"We can't impact the FEMA, 100-year floodplain requirement so in order to minimize that the intent is to keep the bridge as low as possible," Schinstock said. "The higher we get the bridge up in the water column the more upstream impact it will have."

"The existing bridge is structural deficient and functionally obsolete which are terms that basically say it does not meet current code for function and it is in poor, physical condition and needs to be significantly repaired or replaced," Schinstock added.

The original plans call for a two-lane bridge with a minimum width between the guardrails of 22 feet, according to Schinstock. Guidelines set by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials allow the bridge to remain as one lane because of the low volume of traffic -- 276 vehicles per day cross the bridge, Schinstock said. The criteria allow the state to build the bridge as narrow as 16 feet, he said.

Schinstock told the board the VDOT bridge engineer approved the option to rebuild the span for one lane. Schinstock noted the engineer granted the project a design waiver because normally the situation would not allow for a one-lane bridge as an option.

The one-lane option also comes into play because the area served by the bridge remains landlocked on three sides, Carter said. The area near the bridge also doesn't "lend itself to heavy development," according to Carter, so VDOT doesn't anticipate traffic would increase over time.

In response to a question by Supervisor Dennis M. Morris, Carter noted the fact that Artz Road dead ends also influences whether the bridge could remain one lane. VDOT would not consider the bridge for one lane if they foresaw future development in the area, Carter said. The threshold to eliminate the one-lane option is 400 vehicles.

"The design of the structure is gonna be heavily driven by the river mechanics, the hydraulics of the bridge, which we have not yet started," Schinstock said.

VDOT has received requests to raise the bridge to allow canoe access, according to Schinstock. Raising the bridge to meet that request likely would impact the river mechanics, he said. The side of the bridge closer to Woodstock presents slope issues.

"My gut feeling is it's gonna end up where it is now," Schinstock said.

"So that's not going to eliminate [flooding]," asked Supervisor David E. Ferguson.

Carter and Schinstock acknowledged the bridge design would not prevent water from covering the span. They also noted the guardrail would cause debris from the river to collect at the bridge. Federally funded bridge projects such as this require a guardrail, according to Carter.

"What that design will do will back up more trash, which then will have to be cleaned away by VDOT," said Chairman Conrad A. Helsley.

"It can present a maintenance issue, yes," Carter replied.

Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli asked what residents by the bridge have said about the matter. Carter noted VDOT would hold a public hearing next spring but, for now, the agency wanted direction from supervisors which they could give next month after they receive preliminary information on the project.

Baroncelli said she wanted time to meet with residents affected by the bridge project.

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