Bridge hearing draws support, foes of design

FRONT ROYAL – Supporters and opponents of a controversial bridge project in Warren County spoke their minds to state transportation officials Wednesday.

The Virginia Department of Transportation proposes to replace the single-lane, low-water bridge on Morgans Ford Road that crosses the Shenandoah River. The latest design calls for VDOT to build a higher, two-lane bridge with guardrails and other features. VDOT also must raise the grade of the approaches to the bridge to accommodate its increased height.

An engineer hired by the Piedmont Environmental Council created what the organization says is a better, less costly alternative that would still address safety concerns inherent with the existing bridge but limits the project’s impact on the historic and natural resources around the site. Opponents of VDOT’s proposal say the bridge would encroach and cover an area known as Smoketown some say was a community made up of free slaves.

VDOT held a required public hearing at the North Warren Volunteer Fire Department that attracted dozens of people interested in the project. VDOT collected written comments and recorded oral statements from participants that will be used in the design-approval process. More than a dozen VDOT representatives were on hand to answer questions. PEC’s Dan Holmes, in a section provided for non-VDOT groups, provided information about the alternative.

Warren County resident Kenneth Garrett said he supports the plan to replace the bridge. A weight restriction on the existing bridge keeps some contractors from transporting materials in pickup trucks, Garrett said.

“I don’t understand where people get the idea that it’s going to increase traffic that much because I can’t imagine people going out of their way just to go across a new bridge,” Garrett said.

At least two fatal vehicle crashes have been linked to the bridge’s safety and its tendency to flood over in high water. Shenandoah Farms resident Amber Mitchell cited that as a concern.

“I feel like the bridge needs to be replaced,” Mitchell said. “I believe it’s a safety issue.”

Mitchell pointed out that flooding that closes the bridge forces fire and rescue vehicles to take longer routes to respond to emergencies. The weight restriction already prohibits most emergency vehicles from crossing the bridge. Aside from the safety issues, Mitchell said flooding that closes the bridge forces her to go to Winchester to shop.

VDOT’s proposal has attracted vocal opponents, many of whom own land in the area of the bridge. One landowner, Monty Megeath, was not alone in his fear that a higher, wider bridge would draw more traffic. Megeath said he also worried that the restriction on heavy trucks on the bridge that is supposed to remain with the new bridge might be repealed in the future.

Clarke County residents also are voicing opposition to the project. Wingate Mackay-Smith said she and others are concerned that road will become more of a commuter route with the wider bridge to reach development underway and planned for the Happy Creek area. Mackay-Smith said she appreciates the fact that VDOT made alterations to its design but hopes it make others.

“We would like for VDOT to consider measures for calming that traffic and just to be aware that Clarke County is on record as not intending to widen or straighten that road,” Mackay-Smith said.

Megeath and other critics of the proposal said more archaeological study needs to be done around the bridge to investigate Smoketown and other historical aspects of the site before VDOT builds on top of the area.

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