July 2, 2004

Proposal Is Made To Save Bridge
VDOT Commissioner Shucet: ‘Point Of Saying Yes Or No’ Today

"It looks like we have a decent chance at a breakthrough," Clarkton Bridge advocate W.W. "Ted" Bennett said yesterday.

Supporters of the preservation of Clarkton Bridge are hopeful that a proposal sent to VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet will save the structure.

"We faxed (Shucet) a proposal around 11:30 this morning," Bennett confirmed. "We haven't resolved everything yet, but we think we've got a real shot."

Advocates are relying on a blend of public and private funds to save the structure.

"In order to convince VDOT that Southside is willing and wants to save the bridge, we're planning to ask the Boards of Supervisors of Halifax and Charlotte counties to provide between $30 -$35,000 a year earmarked for the bridge."

Around one-third of that amount will be earmarked for insurance, maintenance and inspection of the structure, with the remainder designated to repay a loan of around $200,000 to fix the underwater pier.

"We may not need that," he said, adding that the funds could potentially come from the private sector. "But that will demonstrate to the state that not only the private sector, but the public sector is serious about saving the bridge as well."

Supervisors will hold a special called meeting today at 1 p.m. to address the proposal.

"The proposal that we raise $1.5 million is simply doomed to fail," Bennett said. "We've had engineering advice that the critical repairs will cost between $100 - $200,000."

A Lynchburg company is prepared to conduct a cost estimate on repairs to the pier, considered a critical factor in saving the structure, next week, Bennett said.

"We went with the private sector and found significant donors," Bennett said. "We didn't want this project to be a burden to taxpayers."

Bridge advocates plan to meet with VDOT officials today to address the proposal to save the structure..

According to P.K. Pettus, who has been active in the effort to save the bridge, members of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance and other interested parties were working with anonymous private sector donors to raise the necessary funds mandated by VDOT to save the span.

Bennett said that advocates for the bridge also didn't want a piecemeal approach to preserving the bridge.

"We want the whole thing resolved," he said.

VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet, in a Halifax County meeting last Thursday, offered bridge proponents until the close of business today to raise the money that would save the bridge and make it safe for pedestrian and equestrian use.

Pettus said there was no shortage of people interested in preserving the bridge.

"There's been a huge amount of interest," she said. "Especially with people who have a history of supporting both historical preservation and conservation efforts.

"What's really exciting is so many people from many different sectors are willing to rally here," Pettus added.

Clarkton Bridge advocates said they were confused by VDOT's rush to demolish the bridge.

The struggle to save the bridge hasn't gone unnoticed around the state, according to bridge advocates.

"I've received calls from the Washington Post about the bridge," Pettus noted. "There's a huge amount of support and interest from all over the state in saving this asset to Southside."

In a letter to Commissioner Shucet, Fifth District Congressman Virgil Goode supported the preservation of the bridge.

"I am very familiar with the Clarkton Bridge," Goode wrote, adding that he and his wife had visited the site numerous times. "The bridge, as you know, crosses the Staunton River and in my opinion should not be destroyed.

"It could be a great tourist attraction for both Charlotte County and Halifax County," he added. "I wanted to let you know of my continued support for the Clarkton Bridge, and I know that many citizens do not want to see the bridge demolished by (VDOT).

"I hope that VDOT will work with the interested parties in saving this facility." Al Weed, who is challenging Goode for his Fifth District seat this November, said he was shocked by VDOT's decision.

"It's crazy for VDOT to spend taxpayer dollars to destroy an historic and cherished local landmark... especially since it would cost more to destroy Clarkton Bridge than to renovate it," the Nelson County resident said. "Not only is this government bureaucracy at its worst, it's the only time I've ever seen VDOT try to do something on time.

"Here we have a perfect example of something that can help create jobs in Southside that can't be shipped off to China, and VDOT wants to tear it down. It's nuts. Governments are supposed to take orders from their citizens - not the other way around."

Built in 1901, Clarkton Bridge spans the Staunton River between Charlotte and Halifax counties.

It was closed in 1998 due to safety issues.

In 2003, the Clarkton Bridge Alliance was given the opportunity to find a suitable owner, delaying the awarding of a demolition contract for the bridge.

But in a letter to members of the Alliance in early June, Transportation Secretary Whitt Clement said the department had tried to cooperate with the Alliance but, citing safety and liability issues, time had run out.

Demolition began last week, but was put on hold as the one-week reprieve was offered.

Proponents of saving the bridge say the structure could be an economic engine by promoting tourism and could be a part of planned birding and heritage tourism efforts.

It has been designated a stop on Virginia's Birding and Wildlife Trail and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Boards of Supervisors of both Halifax and Charlotte counties have passed resolutions supporting the formation of an authority to oversee and take ownership of the bridge.

"We'll see what tomorrow brings," Shucet said. "In terms of the efforts that have been made, I think they're admirable. Obviously, it's a sincere effort and I appreciate that.

"I look forward to finding out where they stand on it," he added.

The VDOT commissioner said that he could be willing to work with the bridge advocates if they can come up with a viable plan to preserve the structure.

"In spite of what people think, I'm not unreasonable," he said. "I need to see what it is as there is a great concern about public safety. If they fall short (of the $1.5 million target), I need to see just where they are.

"I may be willing to consider something less, but there are some immediate things that need to be done to that bridge (to address the safety issues,)" he added.

"We'll be at the point of saying yes or no tomorrow," Shucet said yesterday.