Bridge plan foes fault VDOT for deaths

FRONT ROYAL – Several Warren County homeowners critical of plans to replace Morgan Ford Bridge say the state failed to prevent three deaths at the crossing.

Christopher Manion alerted the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that he and others have sent a letter to Attorney General Mark Herring’s office asking that he investigate the events that led to the deaths.

Manion, who lives at 1172 Morgan Ford Road near the bridge, along with many other people, opposed Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans to replace the crossing with a higher, wider span.

“Meanwhile, Mr. Chairman, three people have died at the bridge and, in each case, VDOT was officially warned beforehand and, in each case, VDOT refused to … act in a timely manner to make the bridge safe,” Manion told the board.

Supervisors didn’t comment on Manion’s statements at the meeting. Manion said the board should have looked into the matter long ago.

Supporters of VDOT’s plans to replace the low-water bridge over the Shenandoah River have cited the deaths among the reasons the state should move forward with the project. The proposed replacement has been on the county’s list of road improvement needs for years.

Jessica Lynn Barr died in April 2010 when she drove onto the flooded bridge after dark and the river overcame her vehicle. Coty James Ferguson and Robert Allen Jefferies Jr. died in August 2013 when their speeding car traveled off the bridge and into the water.

But Manion claims VDOT failed to heed warnings by local residents to make changes he says could have prevented the deaths.

“Specifically, the Virginia Department of Transportation ignored timely warnings and refused to take vital safety precautions that could have prevented the … fatalities,” Manion states in the letter.

Sandy Myers, a spokeswoman for VDOT in the Staunton District, referred questions to the Attorney General’s office.

Manion and other homeowners who signed the letter request that the VDOT employees responsible for the “fatal decisions” be barred from further participation in both the remaining planning work and construction of the bridge.

Comments on the record at an official VDOT hearing held two months before Barr’s fatal incident indicate that the agency was urged to install gates that could be closed when the bridge was flooded, Manion notes in the letter. Manion then asks why VDOT waited until May 2010 – a month after Barr’s death – to install the gates.

Manion then notes in the letter that 10 days before Ferguson and Jefferies’ deaths, members of VDOT’s design team, Ron Tabor and Matt Dana, visited the bridge at the request of their supervisor, Randy Kiser and Commonwealth Transportation Board member Dixon Whitworth, to meet with a local resident. The resident urged the VDOT officials to install traffic-calming devices to slow down vehicles before they reached the bridge because warning signs were insufficient, Manion states.

Manion asks in the letter why VDOT did not and has not yet installed the devices.

“Did VDOT make these tragic decisions on its own, or was it influenced by others, including special interests or members of the Warren County Board of Supervisors?” the letter states.

Manion claims that the new bridge, at a cost of more than $10 million, still does not address the safety issues. Manion also criticized Shenandoah District Supervisor Richard Traczyk, whose area includes the bridge, for blaming the deaths not on VDOT but the constituents. Traczyk has criticized opponents of VDOT’s plans for delaying the project.

“Mr. Chairman, I found our supervisor’s accusations misguided and disappointing,” Manion said. “Moreover, it diverted attention from the real issue: Wealthy special interests want a high-speed bypass around the east end of our county to serve a new, commercial development.

“Now VDOT is accommodating them and unfortunately our supervisor is enabling them,” Manion added. “Who are they? A new hospital is the most prominent prospect. Who are the others? Mr. Chairman, VDOT has shown its hand, with a plan to put a major road through our family’s front yard, cutting our property in half. The road is designed to feed even more traffic to the new bridge, this time from the west.”

The other signatories on the letter are Theresa S. Manion, Wayne and Susan Chatfield-Taylor, Maureen Lane-Maher, Barbara Frank, and Beatrice and Adie von Gontard.

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