Petition seeks support for bridge project

A Warren County leader went to the Internet on Monday to gauge community support for the Morgan Ford Bridge replacement project.

More than 500 people had signed the online petition at www.change.org by Tuesday evening requesting that the Virginia Department of Transportation move forward on the project. The direct link to the petition is http://tinyurl.com/kuen88v.

VDOT proposes to replace the single-lane, low-water bridge on Morgan Ford Road that crosses the Shenandoah River with a higher, two-lane span. VDOT plans to hold its design public hearing on the proposal from 4-7 p.m. Feb. 4, at the North Warren Fire Department, 89 Rockland Road, Front Royal.

Supporters have said that VDOT needs to replace the low-water crossing with a safer, higher and wider bridge. Opponents claim the replacement bridge as designed would negatively affect historic and recreational resources around the crossing and would attract more traffic to the rural area.

Richard Traczyk, chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, said Tuesday he, with help from county staff, put the petition on the website. The bridge and the area near the crossing lay in Traczyk’s district.

“It was an opportunity to give the people who support the bridge a voice,” Traczyk said, adding that opponents had “needlessly” delayed work on the project.

Traczyk said he also wanted to use the petition to dispel what he called inaccurate information disseminated by opponents of the proposed new bridge to derail the project.

“It’s just facts that we provided from VDOT,” Traczyk said.

Replacement of the bridge has been a local transportation priority for about a decade. But not everyone in the county wants the bridge replaced to the extent that VDOT proposes.

In June, project opponents started a similar drive at http://tiny.cc/ri7rsx and had collected more than 200 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. Organizers recently sent their petition to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office. Brian Coy, communications director for the governor’s office, did not respond to a request to confirm that McAuliffe had received the opposition’s petition.

VDOT has said that the condition of the Morgan Ford Bridge, built in 1925, is now rated “poor” and the crossing continues to deteriorate, the petition notes. In recent years, the bridge’s tendency to flood over in high water has been blamed for the deaths of Jessica Lynn Barr and of Coty James Ferguson and Robert Allen Jefferies Jr. Traczyk notes in the petition that flooding closes the bridge six to eight weeks per year, forcing emergency responders to drive longer routes to incidents.

Matt Dana, VDOT district location and design engineer, stated by email Tuesday that while the new bridge, as designed, would accommodate heavy emergency vehicles, an agreement the department has with the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Historic Resources prohibits all through-truck traffic.

Wayne Chatfield-Taylor, a vocal opponent of the proposed project who lives near the bridge, criticized VDOT and the county on Tuesday for downplaying the replacement project’s impact. He said the county wants to replace the bridge as a part of a wider plan to create a larger road network in the area.

“This is a vibrant, agricultural area and, in the long-range plan for the county, this is supposed to stay an agricultural area,” Chatfield-Taylor said. “It’s going to be a very high gateway opening to unrestricted traffic of all sizes. They tell us that big trucks will be restricted from using it. That is simply a game that is being told to us.”

Regulatory agencies “glazed over” the design-approval process, he said. Opponents of the proposed design, including the Piedmont Environmental Council, became involved in the process last year and an engineer hired by the organization recommended that VDOT consider a scaled-back version of a new bridge.

Chatfield-Taylor also criticized VDOT for holding what he contends is not a true public hearing in a less-than-accessible site.

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