VDOT OKs Morgan Ford bridge design

State transportation officials have approved the design of the new Morgan Ford Bridge in Warren County.

The Virginia Department of Transportation announced Monday that the chief engineer’s office signed off on the design plans for the bridge replacement project. VDOT will move forward through the next stages of the project. VDOT anticipates acquiring rights-of-way this year and beginning construction in 2016.

The existing Morgan Ford Road bridge, built in 1925, extends 321 feet as a single, 11-foot-wide lane. VDOT intends to replace the low-water bridge over the Shenandoah River with a 22-foot-wide, two-lane crossing in the same area that is 8 feet higher than the existing structure. The higher, wider and longer bridge also requires that VDOT increase the grade and width of the road where it approaches the bridge.

VDOT estimates the federally funded project will cost $9.7 million. The state agency designed a bridge high enough to help mitigate overtopping that often occurs during major storms. The design also allows canoeists and kayakers to go underneath the bridge.

The design includes railings but not a path for bicycles or pedestrians, though neither are restricted from crossing the bridge. Conservation easements near the bridge restricted the width of the new crossing. VDOT obtained a design exception to build the bridge 18 feet narrower than a standard, two-lane crossing. The design does include railings.

The bridge has been the site of at least two vehicle crashes that resulted in three deaths in the past several years.

Traffic counts taken in 2012 showed an average 1,876 vehicles traveled the portion of Morgan Ford Road and the bridge each day. VDOT estimates that number to increase to 3,005 by 2035.

The approved plans reflect the displays and other information presented by VDOT at its Feb. 4 public hearing. Dozens of people came to the hearing and submitted their comments about the project. While many voiced concerns about the design’s impact on the nearby historical, natural and recreational resources, many more said they supported the project.

VDOT posted the answers to frequently asked questions about the project on the agency’s website. For example, VDOT responded to concerns that the project would disturb an early settlement near the bridge known as Smoketown. An archaeological study, including the south bank of the river, found no evidence of the settlement in the area the agency expects to disturb during construction, according to VDOT information.

The Virginia Outdoor Foundation holds easements on the north side of the bridge, while the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has property to the south. The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries might need to close its boat landing temporarily during construction.

VDOT compiled environmental documentation for the Federal Highway Administration that covered threatened and endangered species, historic properties, air quality and the impact on waterways and wetlands.

The Piedmont Environmental Council hired an engineer who provided VDOT with an alternative that called for a scaled-back design — a two-lane crossing but only 2.7 feet higher than the existing bridge that did include a bicycle-pedestrian path. VDOT claims it gave fair consideration to the environmental group’s alternative and incorporated some of the suggestions into the design to make it more harmonious with the Rockland Rural Historic District and the character of the crossing. VDOT also needed to set up a memorandum of agreement to document its commitments to mitigate the impact to the district.

But Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, remained critical of VDOT.

“I think we put a viable alternative on the table and they turned a blind eye to it,” Holmes said. “Frankly, other than highlighting it as a missed opportunity, I don’t really know what else to do.”

VDOT filed for a categorical exclusion for environmental assessments for the project as required by the Federal Highway Administration, indicating a limited amount of oversight over the construction, Holmes said. The organization has yet to hear back from any agency about the location of Smoketown, Holmes added. Their design called for a lower bridge to keep the project from encroaching on the settlement’s location, he noted.

The organization also had submitted a timeline to the Federal Highway Administration demonstrating that the state Department of Historic Resources was taking information on the Smoketown location prior to signing the memorandum of agreement that allowed for the VDOT-designed bridge.

“So I don’t know how you accept that historic resource is there yet continue on with the project you know is going to disturb that resource,” Holmes said.

Visit http://tiny.cc/51ybwx for more information about the project.

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