By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL -- State and federal agencies may soon reach a deal on an issue holding up a major bridge project in Warren County.
The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to replace the deteriorating, low-water bridge on Morgan Ford Road over the Shenandoah River with a higher, two-lane crossing. The single-lane bridge has been the site of at least two fatal crashes in several years. VDOT says the 90-year-old bridge is in bad shape and needs replacing. A group of residents opposed to the project say a new bridge would attract more traffic and negatively impact the area.
VDOT District Location and Design Engineer Matt Dana said Wednesday the lack of a memorandum of agreement continues to delay the transportation agency from moving forward with the next step. VDOT projects rarely require a memorandum of agreement and the past eight months spent by the parties on the deal has kept the state agency from moving forward, Dana said.
VDOT needs signatures from several agencies -- including the Federal Highway Administration -- that must also sign off on the project's environmental impact analysis. VDOT needs the environmental document before it can hold the public hearing. In order to complete the environmental document, VDOT needs the agreement signed.
"I don't know if [the agreement] is holding it up but it's certainly slowing down the project," Dana said. "We've been working on this for ... about eight months now, so it has taken longer than expected."
The Department of Historic Resources has been involved with the project since the beginning because federal funds are being used and the bridge is in an eligible historic district, spokesman Randy Jones said Wednesday.
"We're still very much in the threshing stages of working with VDOT on the bridge design," Jones said. "Our position remains as it has been all along that the bridge represents an adverse impact on an eligible historic district."
The Department of Historic Resources is involved with the project under the regulations in the National Historic Preservation Act, federal guidelines aimed at protecting historic properties.
The Board of Supervisors heard an update on the project Tuesday from Dana.
"This is a particularly challenging project from an environmental, public involvement standpoint," Dana told the board. "I think we're as close as we've ever been to reaching an agreement with the Department of Historic Resources."
In response to a question from Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox, Dana said he couldn't give the board a more precise timeline for the project but VDOT officials hope to reach a deal in about a month and then schedule the public hearing for the project.
Dana said at the board meeting that the Department of Historic Resources has asked VDOT to incorporate wooden guardrails in the design. Such guardrails have been used along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Dana said. VDOT has not used wooden guardrails in many of its projects. Given the low speed of the bridge and its approaches and the restriction on large trucks on the bridge, Dana said VDOT is considering them.
The Piedmont Environmental Council also has indicated an interest in weighing in on the project and hired its own engineer to make some suggestions to VDOT, Dana said.
Ordinarily, VDOT uses the public hearing to allow individuals and organizations to provide input on a project.
"It is kind of unusual that we have a group, the Piedmont Environmental Council, who hired an engineer to do that [before a public hearing]," Dana said.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org