VDOT awards contract for bridge project

FRONT ROYAL – State transportation officials recently awarded a nearly $5 million contract for replacement of the Morgan Ford Bridge in Warren County.

Orders Construction Company Inc., of St. Albans, West Virginia, submitted the lowest bid at $4.88 million, according to information from Ken Slack, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. VDOT awarded the contract to the firm on Friday.

VDOT plans to replace the low-water bridge over the Shenandoah River on Morgan Ford Road with a wider, two-lane crossing near Howellsville Road in the same spot as the existing structure.

VDOT has said it needs to replace the deteriorating, existing bridge built in 1924. VDOT has restricted heavy trucks from using the crossing although some drivers have not heeded the warning. The river also often overtops the low-water bridge after heavy rains. The bridge was closed Monday because of high water.

The new bridge will be longer – 480 feet compared to the existing structure at 321 feet. A longer, wider bridge requires improved approaches to the crossing. The approved design does not include a sidewalk or bicycle lanes but VDOT doesn’t plan to restrict use of the crossing by pedestrians or bicyclists.

Earlier estimates put the construction cost at $7.86 million and total price at closer to $9.7 million, which included preliminary engineering at $1.17 million and $675,189 for acquiring land needed for the project. The contract price plus the other expenses bring the cost to about $6.8 million – far below the original estimate. VDOT received construction bids that exceeded the original estimate or fell below that number, Slack said.

The state covers 20 percent of the project cost while the remaining 80 percent comes from federal sources.

VDOT crews are relocating the utility lines near the site as part of the project, Slack said. VDOT negotiated with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as well as with three private property owners to acquire the land needed for the project. VDOT has not executed the construction contract, but officials anticipate construction will begin this spring. The contract has a fixed completion date of June 2018.

Easements with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries lie to the north and south of the bridge site respectively. The Morgan Ford boat landing lies on the southeastern side of the existing bridge.

“The property owners along there certainly know that we have this in the plans,” Slack said. “But in between the design and when you can actually put this thing out to bid you’ve gotta have your ducks in a row as far as making sure you have right of way to actually do the project.”

Delays in the project approval process did not appear to affect the construction cost.

A group of property owners who live near the bridge, conservationists and historians have tried for years to stop or at least slow down the work on the project. Clarke County historian Maral Kalbian and others claimed that the new crossing would encroach on an area once known as Smoketown – a community on the river created by freed slaves. Some historians and opponents urged VDOT to at least let archaeologists excavate the area purported to be Smoketown before the project moves forward. The Piedmont Environmental Council hired an engineer who provided VDOT with an alternative design that reduced the scope of the project and its impact on the historical and natural resources near the site.

VDOT provided a list of answers to frequently asked questions on the project’s webpage at http://www.virginiadot.org. VDOT states that while the remains of Smoketown might lie near the site, an archaeological investigation of the project, including the south bank of the river, found no evidence of the settlement within the construction area. Kalbian has claimed that old maps depicting Smoketown line up with topographic maps of the area.

While the project might require temporary closure of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries boat launch, the project will not hinder access to the facility. Nor will the project interfere with recreational activities at the boat launch, VDOT states.

VDOT studied the environmental impacts of the project and submitted the information to the Federal Highway Administration. VDOT states that it gave fair consideration to the Piedmont Environmental Council’s alternative design concept and incorporated some of its suggestions into the design to make the project more harmonious with the Rockland Rural Historic District and the character of the river crossing.

VDOT also addressed the question of why the project has taken so long given that it held the last public information meeting in November 2012. VDOT has been working with the stakeholders on the project to find common ground on a variety of issues. VDOT also had to obtain a memorandum of agreement to mitigate impacts of the project on the historic district.

For more information on the project, go to http://tinyurl.com/zz4dcum

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