By Alex Bridges
State transportation officials must weigh several factors before they can nix a park-and-ride lot from designs for the South Fork Bridge replacement project.
Front Royal Town Council at its meeting Tuesday voted to ask the Virginia Department of Transportation to remove the commuter lot at Shenandoah Avenue and 18th Street as proposed. Council voted 4-2 in favor of a resolution that cites the town's efforts to beautify its entrances, the need for green space and a threat of runoff from the lot to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.
The resolution is addressed to Sean Connaughton, state secretary of transportation, and VDOT Commissioner Gregory Whirley.
Sany Myers, a spokeswoman for the department, stated in an email, "When a request from a locality to change an element of a project is received, VDOT will consider and evaluate the value of the change, prior public input and the affect of the change on the project design, function, schedule and cost."
Councilmen Thomas H. Sayre and Daryl L. Funk opposed the resolution and expressed fear such a change late in the process could delay the project and lead to a loss in federal funding.
But Councilmen Bret W. Hrbek and N. Shae Parker expressed doubt that a redesign would jeopardize the funding and accused VDOT of using that fear to keep from having to make late changes to the design.
Hrbek noted that neither he nor several other members were on council when VDOT held public meetings a few years ago and took input on the project's design, including the commuter lot. If council at the time supported the commuter lot, Hrbek said the consensus has changed with the panel's membership.
"I think the town has spent a tremendous amount of money to beautify our entrances and we continue to look for what kind of vision we want to have as people cross the bridges, as pretty as the new bridge is and hopefully the second one will be just as nice," Hrbek said. "To have a parking lot as the first thing you see is not the kind of impression that we want to leave for our visitors we hope will move here and spend money here and work here and enjoy Front Royal."
It's council's prerogative to tell VDOT the town doesn't want the parking lot in the proposed location, Hrbek added, noting that the agency did not ask Front Royal officials where to put the facility. Council has asked VDOT to relocate the required stormwater pond in another part of the property.
Hrbek challenged Sayre's worry that asking VDOT to change the project design at this stage could result in a loss of federal funding.
"I believe that kind of threat is just that -- it's a threat to get us to back down and I am willing to call that bluff, so I am looking forward to voting for this and telling VDOT that this is the town that we have and we'd like to have it look like the town we want it to look like," Hrbek said.
Funk said he initially agreed with the resolution, including the concerns with the aesthetics of the lot's design.
"I am very concerned over the safety of the residents in the neighborhood around the park-and-ride," Funk said. "However, I do believe the replacement of the South Fork bridge is of the utmost priority to all the citizens of Front Royal and Warren County, and to the extent that I believe a redesign might endanger that project and the lives of the people traveling that bridge, I have to vote against [the resolution]."
Parker called the argument for keeping the lot to not delay or hinder the project "almost absurd" and he accused VDOT of bullying the town. Parker noted the lot escaped the attention of council and officials at the time because VDOT advertised the project as a bridge replacement. VDOT officials have indicated the agency included the parking lot in the design as advertised. Parker added that he would rather see VDOT make alterations to the existing lot and relocate the recycling center elsewhere in the county to make room for expansion.
"I have to say if VDOT's willing to risk the lives of the people of the Town of Front Royal who have to cross that bridge over a park and ride, shame on them," Hrbek added.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org