By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL - Fans and foes of a plan to replace a decaying, flood-prone bridge in Warren County gave their input to state transportation officials Wednesday.
Virginia Department of Transportation representatives heard views and answered questions from close to 100 people about a project to replace the Morgan Ford Road Bridge over the Shenandoah River.
VDOT proposes to widen the one-lane bridge to two lanes and raise the span approximately 7 feet. The project is estimated to cost more than $7 million. VDOT has said the bridge's age, state of decay and the amount of traffic using the span makes it impractical to repair the structure.
Tammy Barr's daughter, Jessica, died March 30, 2010, after rising water from the river washed her vehicle downstream. Barr, who attended the meeting, said she supports the plan.
"I'm excited for it to happen," Barr said. "I don't understand why anybody would be opposed to it. ... It's definitely going to help people get back and forth to their homes every time it rains.
"This is Jessica's day," Barr added. "Her voice is speaking to everyone here."
While Barr still blames VDOT for failing to adequately alert motorists to the washed-out bridge, she lauded the agency for its efforts to prevent another death. Gates were installed on either side of the bridge and can be closed in the event of a flood. Barr said the gates have been cut down or damaged more than once.
"I understand the landowners, the people who live over here and want to preserve everything and that's great, but when it's costing people their lives, they need to see the whole picture," Barr said.
Warren County resident Jill Alicie lives close to the bridge and said she supports the project.
"Historically it's a great idea to keep it, but it needs modernized," Alicie said. "It's very dangerous.
"We watch helicopters and fire department go down there any time it floods just in case somebody's been washed into the river, and it's just an unsettling feeling," Alicie said, adding that the idea that they're finally going to fix it and make it better and make it safer outweighs the historical need for it.
Opponents argue the design as proposed would impede the view, affect the historic nature of the surrounding agricultural land and costs far more than their preferred alternative of repairing the bridge. Morgan's Ford Farm operator Wayne T. Chatfield-Taylor estimates repairing the existing bridge would cost approximately $1.7 million.
Craig and Kathleen Ernst live in Shenandoah Farms and work on the Morgan's Ford Farm near the bridge. They claim motorists use Morgan Ford Road as a shortcut to Riverton Commons shopping center. The Ernsts said they fear widening the bridge and straightening the approaches would draw more motorists and create safety hazards.
"I think the bridge, as it is, is still somewhat of a deterrent for people not to go racing through there," Craig Ernst said.
"I think it's absolutely extreme for them to be proposing this," said Kathleen Ernst. "Just financially I think it's ridiculous."
Craig Ernst added, "Plus the appearance of the river right there is very quaint, countrified. It's been that way for so long, I'm having a hard time dealing with the idea of a 15-foot structure there."
White Post resident Robin Richards said she opposes the project because of the impact it could have on the view of the area and the extra traffic the bridge could attract.
The informal public meeting served as a way for VDOT to collect input on the project as the agency works through the long process. As one agency official explained to a resident, the project still lies a few years out before construction can begin. Heather Williams, a location and design official at the agency's office in Staunton, told the resident VDOT has not yet finalized the design.
Contrary to some fears expressed by opponents, Williams explained that VDOT would restrict tractor-trailers from using the bridge. The project leaves in place a public boat landing and fishing area. The current ban on fishing from the bridge would remain, according to Williams.
Chatfield-Taylor, also at the meeting, claimed that the area around the bridge carries historic and prehistoric importance, as a site likely to hold more native American artifacts and that serves as a gateway to the state's first agricultural district. Chatfield-Taylor said VDOT should allow for archaeological excavation around the site before they move forward on the project.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org