Bridge in Limbo

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 25, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

A new Kings Highway Bridge might have been under construction by now.

If things had gone by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s 2001 plan, the agency would have awarded contracts on the $26.7 million bridge replacement and be gearing up for a mid-June groundbreaking.

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But today, things are much the same as they were two years ago.

School buses loaded with children still aren’t allowed to cross the 75-year-old drawbridge spanning the Nansemond River between Driver and Chuckatuck.

VDOT still conducts quarterly inspections to insure that the bridge, with its zero safety rating, remains safe enough to accommodate the estimated 3,300 vehicles that cross it daily.

Apparently, none of that will be changing anytime soon.

The $7.2 billion, six-year road improvement package adopted last week by the Commonwealth Transportation Board – VDOT’s governing board – does not earmark any construction money for the Kings Highway Bridge.

In years past, VDOT has allocated $4.3 million for the project — $2.5 million for preliminary engineering, $1.3 million for right-of-way acquisition – to replace the bridge in its current location.

Progress on the project was put on hold two years ago, when the Suffolk City Council voted to ask the state to study a plan that would move the bridge about a 1/2-mile upstream. City leaders and many nearby residents supported the proposal, saying it would help preserve the rural character of Chuckatuck.

Eventually, VDOT agreed to put the project on hold long enough to conduct a $600,000 relocation study. That study, due to be finished in the next couple of months, involved communicating with a plethora of state and federal regulatory agencies

— including the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers – to determine the feasibility of relocating the bridge to the proposed alternate site, said VDOT spokesman Jeff Caldwell.

Eric Nielsen, city’s director of public works, said VDOT has advised it would be holding public informational meetings this fall to share two or three realignment possibilities that have emerged from the relocation study.

Based on VDOT’s current plan, it will be at least 2010 before VDOT sets construction funds aside for the bridge replacement, Caldwell said. Although the CTB can amend the plan to add the funding at any time, that doesn’t happen too often, he said.

But Nielsen believes VDOT may be waiting until the results of the relocation study are complete before moving ahead with the project.

The Rev. Raymond Jones, who spearheaded community efforts to have the bridge replaced in its current location, is less optimistic.

With the state and, in particular, VDOT’s current fiscal woes, Jones believes the project could be on hold indefinitely.

&uot;I seriously doubt the bridge will be built in the next 25 years,&uot; said Jones. &uot;I don’t see much hope for it at all.&uot;

Poor local and state politics are behind the project delay, he said.

&uot;The system has failed us. It only confirms what I’ve said since I’ve lived in here: that Virginia has poor leadership,&uot; Jones said. &uot;I think most people are disillusioned with the council and mayor.

&uot;…I’m disgusted with the whole thing. I have no confidence or faith in anything that VDOT says anymore.&uot;