Group seeks new review of bridge proposal

FRONT ROYAL – An environmental group has again asked state and federal officials to reconsider a controversial bridge proposal in Warren County.

The Piedmont Environmental Council contends the state and federal agencies overseeing the work on the proposed Morgan Ford Road bridge replacement ignored some pertinent information in a report submitted by the organization’s private engineer several months ago.

The Virginia Department of Transportation recently reached an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer that calls for VDOT to reduce the height of the new bridge from a proposed 8 feet over the current crossing to 6 feet.

Warren County Supervisor Richard Traczyk, whose district covers the area of the bridge, criticized the Piedmont Environmental Council’s request.

“I am saddened by the continual efforts of the opposition to derail VDOT’s efforts to bring this project to fruition,” Traczyk stated in an email Thursday. “I pray no other deaths occur on the failing bridge while they employ their latest delay tactics.”

VDOT won’t hold the required public hearing on the bridge design proposal until sometime in early winter, Project Manager Ronald Tabor said Thursday.

The council sent the letter dated Nov. 11 to VDOT official Stephen J. Long, Irene Rico with the Federal Highway Administration, Julie Langan with Department of Historic Resources, and Charlene Dwin Vaughn with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

In the letter, the environmental group makes the formal request that agencies reopen the “section 106 review” of the proposal based on “newly discovered historic properties and significant new information about the unanticipated effects of the project on historic properties.” The organization also cites its opposition to, and choice not to join as a party to the agreement as reasons for the request.

Director of State Policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council Dan Holmes said Thursday most of the new information comes from more research into the location of Smoketown – a community that once existed along the North Fork of the Shenandoah River – as well as work underway to create the Rockland Rural Historic District.

The environmental group is saying that the review process has “not proceeded in the proper fashion” and, as such, requested that the advisory council become involved, Holmes said.

“We believe that we put forth sufficient evidence to suggest that the location of Smoketown is where we say it is,” Holmes said. “VDOT is relying on a separate map to suggest they are right and we feel like basically they are insisting upon something, yet they’ve provided no credible information to support their claim and we feel like the evidence that we’ve put forward towards the location of the community is much greater, much more substantial and merits consideration.”

The environmental council supports the replacement of the existing, one-lane bridge with a two-lane crossing, given the traffic data. But the organization has opposed VDOT’s proposal to raise the bridge 8 feet higher than the existing structure as illustrated in current designs. The environmental group’s engineer, Ian Lockwood, suggested that VDOT could scale back the bridge and still meet the intended goals.

“We contend this alternative did not receive adequate consideration and was prematurely dismissed by the agencies involved,” the organization’s letter states. “The mitigation proposed in the [agreement] falls well short of the protections warranted by the historic resources involved.”

Anthony F. Opperman, VDOT’s cultural resources program manager, states in a Sept. 26 letter to Holmes that the department believes Smoketown settlement lies outside the project area. Opperman states that VDOT spent weeks reviewing Lockwood’s report and that the department agreed with some of the engineer’s recommendations. But, in conclusion, Opperman states that VDOT believes the proposed modifications “will satisfy the urgent need to replace a failing bridge while doing so in a manner that respects historic preservation and conservation values and achieves a greater public good.”

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