Low water bridge project awaiting bids

Virginia state police Sgt. Phil King talks on his cell phone while watching water cross the Artz Road bridge Thursday afternoon east of Woodstock. Melba Jo Rice, 78, of Woodstock was killed as her vehicle was swept off the bridge in high water Thursday morning. Her body and car were recovered late Thursday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

The low-water bridge on Artz Road near Woodstock that was the scene of a fatal swift water incident Thursday is under advertisement for a replacement project.

On Thursday morning, Woodstock resident Melba Jo Rice, 78, was attempting to cross the low water bridge in her Ford Fusion when it was swept over the bridge and into the water. Rescue crews found the submerged car downstream from the bridge and later found her body about 1.6 miles downstream near Headley Road.

The Virginia Department of Transportation project, which can be found at http://tinyurl.com/jyy25qv, calls for a slightly wider one-lane bridge with a low railing a few feet downstream. In summer 2014, VDOT lowered the weight limit on the existing bridge from 10 to 5 tons. Fire and rescue officials said at the time that the new weight limit prevents many vehicles like ambulances from crossing the North Fork of the Shenandoah River there.

Project manager Keith Harrop said the new bridge would stand 2 feet higher than the existing one, although it wasn’t sought after for the higher water clearance. The existing bridge was built in 1922, and VDOT changed the posted weight limit because of structural risks.

“Any emergency vehicle would be able to pass,” he said of the new bridge. “They get posted when they start having structural problems.”

In a similar case, Harrop said he’s also working on designs for a new bridge on Headley Road just north of Artz Road. The existing bridge was built in 1932, and the proposed replacement would sit 5 feet higher from normal water elevation.

“They don’t carry a whole lot of traffic, so they’ve lasted longer,” he said of the older bridges in Shenandoah. “But when they get flooded out like they do, and with normal wear and tear…they’ve got to get replaced.”

Recent heavy precipitation aused the North Fork of the Shenandoah River water levels to rise to or above 6 ½ feet three times in the month of February, but National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Elliott said that those high levels tend to last a day or less. Water levels on Thursday crested at 6 ½ feet, and had lowered by about a foot on Friday.

Harrop said that while the new bridge’s elevation and railing would increase its safety, high waters are still not a danger to be underestimated.

“Will the railing improve things? Absolutely,” he said. “Whenever a bridge has water overtopping it, it’s not something you want to cross.”

He said the first round of bids for the project came in during the fall of 2015, but VDOT rejected them because they were higher than its $2.5 million estimate. Harrop said the next round of bids should be in by mid-March and that the approval process typically takes a few weeks. After approval, he said contractors would take about two to three months to mobilize on the construction.

Emergency vehicles were able to access the eastern bank of the river on Thursday using Mill Road, which stems off of U.S. 11 farther south, and continuing onto Hickory Lane – a private road.

Cliff Balderson, administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation Edinburg Residency, said the landowners agreed to a request from the county to allow access to Artz Road residents via Hickory Lane when the weight limit decreased in 2014.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com