Commentary: Do we want a safe bridge, or some politician’s legacy?

In supporting the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans for a new Morgan Ford Bridge, our supervisor implies that critics of the plan oppose a safe bridge. He couldn’t be more wrong.

As neighbors of the bridge, we have long advocated a safe bridge that slows traffic down, rather than speeding it up.

In February 2010, in official comments to VDOT, I urgently requested that gates immediately be installed on both approaches to the bridge. Officials could easily close the gates, I wrote, whenever the river was flooded. Why wait for a new bridge to make the crossing safe?

Nothing was done.

Two months later, a woman died driving onto the flooded bridge at night.

Our supervisor wrote me immediately. He now supported gates.

The gates were installed that May.

The flooding problem was solved. But not the speed problem.

When I urged our supervisor to support traffic calming devices, he said, “Why don’t you take the lead on that?”

Well, I did. In July 2013, I met with VDOT officials at the bridge site. I urged them to install simple, inexpensive traffic calming devices on both approaches. Signs are not enough, I told them, you really need to get the driver’s attention to make him slow down.

They told me that “engineering standards” would not permit such devices.

Only days later, two young men died when their speeding car went over the bridge into the river.

Originally, our supervisor assured us that the unique, pristine beauty of the river and the surrounding agricultural area would be preserved.

He wanted this safe bridge to be his “legacy,” he explained. But his priorities have changed. He now supports an oversize, overpriced structure that would be worthy of that “legacy.”

Most unfortunately, he attacks his constituents who oppose his plans. He turns history upside down, alleging that the critics of VDOT’s proposal are responsible for the deaths at the bridge. “How many people have to die on that bridge before I get full support for its replacement,” he complains.

As Justice Arthur Goldberg used to say, such allegations are “a gross canard, cut out of whole cloth.”

The record is clear: both our supervisor and VDOT dismissed our timely pleas for immediate action on specific safety measures that could have saved those lives.

Blind to the facts, the “legacy” lives on. “It is already paid for,” he brags – because the bridge and its new approaches can be funded by our old friend, “free federal money.”

Our agricultural district — a first for the commonwealth — stretches to the north of the bridge for miles, with many farms in “scenic easement.” VDOT cannot widen or relocate the rural roads there, which are treacherous at any speed over 25 mph.

Nonetheless, special interests want VDOT’s bridge to provide a quick “bypass” through eastern Warren County, making it easier for folks to avoid the town of Front Royal when reaching the commercial areas on Route 522 to the north and the proposed new hospital to the south. Undoubtedly, such a bypass would be a magnet, drawing ever more commercial activity to this agricultural area.

If that is the silent goal of VDOT’s advocates, they should say so out loud. If not, there are several reasonable alternatives.

Our neighbors hired private engineers at their own expense to design a safe bridge, more modest than VDOT’s and less costly to the taxpayer. Is our supervisor grateful that they saved the taxpayer money? Hardly. They are merely “slowing progress” on his “legacy.”

VDOT’s engineers draw lines on maps of places far away. Preserving the beauty and unique character of communities is someone else’s problem.

Normally that responsibility would lie with the Warren County Board of Supervisors. But our supervisor, who chairs that body, has made his position clear. “Free federal money,” and his “legacy,” rule.

Case closed? Not necessarily. If traffic calming devices “don’t meet engineering standards,” how about applying some “people standards” instead?

Senior VDOT officials assure me that VDOT’s final plans must be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

But hasn’t that body’s chairman already made clear his unctuous view of those “opponents” who “throw up road blocks” to his “legacy”?

Yes — but reason can still prevail. The people have a right to petition their government, without fear of retribution or calumny.

The ball is now in the people’s court. We have a legacy, too — the character of our county and our representative institutions. It’s up to us to protect it.

Chris Manion is Warren County resident.