Report: Scale back bridge project

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL — An engineer hired by an environmental group says the state should scale back its Morgan Ford Bridge replacement project.

The Virginia Department of Transportation proposes to replace the current low-water bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on Morgan Ford Road with a two-lane span. VDOT has designed a new bridge 8 feet higher than the current crossing.

The project’s use of federal money, and the involvement of federal agencies, has added some layer of complexity to the project, delaying the normal design-approval process. Earlier this year the Piedmont Environmental Council became involved in the process.

An engineer working for the Piedmont Environment Council recommends that VDOT build a bridge 2.7 feet higher than the current crossing to mitigate the impact on the surrounding area. Ian Lockwood, of Toole Design Group, presented the recommendations to representatives from VDOT and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources last month.

VDOT has not provided any revised design to the Department of Historic Resources for its review, public information officer Randall Jones said by email this week.

VDOT won’t schedule the required public hearing on the project until the Department of Historic Resources signs off on a design. The public hearing has been delayed for several months already.

Engineers agreed that the current traffic counts and projections warrant the need to widen the bridge to two lanes, said Dan Holmes, with the Piedmont Environmental Council, in a recent interview. The engineers also agree with VDOT that the bridge needs to be replaced. The suggested design includes the guardrails and sidewalk proposed by VDOT.

However, as Holmes explained, the engineers also recognized that area around the bridge includes significant historic resources and recreational amenities. Conservation land lies north of the project area. VDOT must take these elements into account when proceeding with the project.

But one of the vocal critics of VDOT’s design says the state doesn’t need to expand or raise the bridge at all, nor should it. Warren County resident Wayne Chatfield-Taylor lives near the bridge and runs Morgan’s Ford Farm and has spoken out against VDOT’s proposals. Chatfield-Taylor said recently that VDOT officials pushing the current design focus only on the bridge and not the approaches to the crossing or the road network.

The road goes through thousands of acres of conserved land and 20 contiguous farms, Chatfield-Taylor said. The area around the bridge has agricultural and historic significance, he added.

“So this is going to shatter that and we’re opposed to that,” Chatfield-Taylor said.

VDOT’s latest estimates put the cost of the new bridge at $7.4 million. The reduced scope of the bridge as suggested by the engineer should cut the cost of the project, Holmes said. Chatfield-Taylor and other opponents of the current design say the state would save money by not expanding the bridge.

A bridge built 8 feet higher than the current crossing would require VDOT to raise the existing approaches on Morgan Ford Road to nearly match the level with the curve to the south of the river. As Holmes noted, the project area goes beyond the bridge itself. Such an expansion would encroach on the former roadbed connected to the settlement referred to as Smoketown. Holmes said satellite images show the roadbed still exists.

The bridge as designed “does everything to destroy the view up and down the river,” and separates the two recreation areas at the crossing, Holmes said. People would need to walk underneath bridge to get from one side to the other, he explained.

“What [the engineers] found was that you had a serious diminishing return on the elevation that you raise the bridge past three feet,” Holmes said.

The bridge floods 54-56 days a year. VDOT had to raise the bridge 8 feet to reduce the number of days to its lower average, Holmes said. Engineers found that raising the bridge 2.7 feet would reduce number of days it floods by less than 10. VDOT could achieve the majority of its transportation needs by raising it to this height, Holmes said.

Opponents say a larger bridge would attract more vehicle traffic, including large trucks. VDOT prohibits large trucks and tractor-trailers from using the bridge and recently the agency reduced the weight limit on the crossing. VDOT officials say the new bridge would allow for all legal load limits but the tractor trailer restriction would remain in place.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com