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Public feedback wanted on new Kings Highway Bridge

A new Kings Highway Bridge could cost a king’s ransom should it ever be built, but whether that happens may still be a bridge too far.

Currently, there is no funding source for a bridge that, according to a state SmartScale estimate, would cost more than $90 million, as the process to secure money for the bridge, and then actually building it, is still in doubt. The SmartScale program prioritizes funding of transportation projects based on what it says most benefits the public.

More than 15 years ago, the Kings Highway Bridge, a swingspan bridge that crossed the Nansemond River and connected the villages of Chuckatuck and Driver, fell into disrepair and closed, creating a 16-mile detour to get around the area.

The bridge, which opened to traffic in 1928 as a privately-owned toll facility, was bought by the Virginia Department of Transportation in 1963 and operated as a toll-free bridge before it was demolished in early 2008, about three years after it had closed after 77 years of operation.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization commissioned a regional bridge study two years ago that outlined the steep cost for a new span, noting that it was not eligible for State of Good Repair funding. It is also not included in what the HRTPO stated was “the fiscally-constrained” Hampton Roads 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan, though it is in the region’s 2040 Regional Transportation Vision Plan.

Last year, City Council, in its 2020 legislative agenda, called for the General Assembly to address nine transportation deficiencies in the city, including the replacement of the bridge.

Sen. John Cosgrove, who represents part of Suffolk in the General Assembly, introduced legislation in January that would have allowed the bridge to be considered by VDOT for State of Good Repair funds. That bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, who also represents part of Suffolk, was continued to the 2021 legislative session by the Transportation Committee. The bill would have also directed the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the city and members of the House of Delegates and Senate, to work toward finding funding sources to replace the bridge.

City Public Works Director L.J. Hansen noted the interest about the bridge and briefly reviewed its history, demise and failed attempts to rebuild it during a recent City Council meeting.

“Where we have found ourselves is in a challenge to identify to the state, when we’ve applied for funding, what that replacement bridge looks like,” Hansen said. “There are multiple alignments, there are multiple heights, and at this time, we feel it’s prudent to reach out to the community — determine first and foremost, do they want a replacement Kings Highway Bridge … and second of all, where that would be located.”

Wherever it goes, Hansen said it would not be a mechanical bridge like the old one and would have to be higher, which means impacts to properties on either or both shores.

He said the city wants to finalize a design for the new bridge, and has hired the architectural and engineering firm Clark Nexsen to aid in that effort.

“We’ve engaged Clark Nexsen only for the purposes of this study,” Hansen said. “We realize we don’t know what the final outcome of this is going to be. There is no design that has been engaged yet.”

Hansen said it is not a commitment to build a bridge, but rather to see what residents would like to see in a new bridge, understand the limitations and potential cost consequences of various designs, and understand that the city still needs to secure the money for the bridge if it is rebuilt.

John Stuart, a senior project manager with Clark Nexsen, said he wants to determine public sentiment for a new bridge and where it should go. He said the firm would provide “some high-level background” on the conceptual layouts, and what they would cost.

Public meetings will take place in Driver and Chuckatuck sometime in October or November, and there will also be an online survey. Stuart said the goal is to provide a report to council later in November or December.

After getting the public feedback, the firm will report back to council on its findings.

Stuart said it would use previous proposals as background during this process, looking at either a 35-foot or 65-foot height for the bridge.

“There’s probably a few citizens out there that may not be enamored with the idea, but most individuals that I’ve talked to, constituents that I’ve talked to, surely miss the Kings Highway Bridge just for convenience and the drive-around time, also looking at it from an evacuation route,” said Chuckatuck Borough Councilman Mike Duman, who noted that the project estimate was $91.1 million and was ranked 33rd of 52 district projects and 285th out of 404 projects statewide.

Hansen said the public participation process would help the city set its priorities and goals for the bridge for the next time it applies for SmartScale money.

“In our previous rounds, we took a stab at it,” Hansen said. “We’re showing two alignments. Environmentally, we’ve had two alignments evaluated — both of them are still technically viable, according to our research, so we feel confident that those two alignments can work.

“The question really comes down to, what is the best interest for the citizens of Suffolk. Would the City Council feel comfortable pursuing (it), and then how do we put together a funding element that can make that work?”

Sleepy Hole Borough Councilman Roger Fawcett, who represents the Driver area, said rebuilding the bridge at its old location would not be popular at the state level trying to get money, because it would flow into a small community to get over to State Route 10.

“That would be somewhat difficult, and futuristic, I think you’d got to go for the best bang for the buck, but where it was before may not, capacity wise, help, particularly coming through Chuckatuck,” Fawcett said. “That really crunches in, and I’m sure those people over there are not going to be crazy about that.”

He said he didn’t understand the need for a 65-foot high span, but residents along the shoreline would have to be kept in mind. He said he would be closely watching the process.

“At the end of the day, we do need a bridge over there,” Fawcett said, “and we need that not just for the convenience, but futuristic, to get people out if we have to get them out of the area.”

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said getting public feedback is a good starting point for conversation about possibly building a new span, though she cautioned that no one should get their hopes up that it will happen anytime soon. She said getting a new bridge will be costly at a time when VDOT funding statewide is problematic, she said, adding that “we’re going to have to be willing as a city to look at money” for the span.