June 10, 2004

Worth Saving

To many folks it is, after all, only a bridge.

When the Virginia Department of Transportation announced last week that it would tear down Clarkton Bridge, it was simply doing what highway departments do - making a nuts and bolts decision about transportation priorities. By the metrics by which these things are judged, it has to be tough for VDOT to justify the expenditure of money, man-hours and other organizational resources to save an abandoned bridge in the middle of nowhere.

Unfortunately, the conventional metrics do the public a disservice in this instance. Lord knows, VDOT has all kinds of problems, mostly brought on by people wanting more and more from the agency while giving it less and less to work with. But the challenge posed by Clarkton Bridge isn't entirely - or even principally - about money. It's about the willingness of the highway bureaucracy to go the extra mile to accommodate local desires and think creatively about community development.

Look, Clarkton Bridge can't exactly be considered a godsend among the IDA set. Your views on the bridge's usefulness undoubtedly depend on your ideas of what constitutes progress. There's an ongoing tension between those who would wrap the county's economic future up in projects such as Riverstone Technology Park and those who wonder why we spend so much money on the park when so many of our public assets - historic and otherwise - are crumbling under our feet.

In the battle between old and new, there's no question on which side of the debate Clarkton Bridge falls. The impulse to tear it down reflects the mentality that while historic treasures are nice, it's the latest and greatest that really impress.

It's a shame. If you've never been out to Clarkton Bridge, you should visit it now while there's still the chance. (This advice is offered on the assumption VDOT will follow through on demolition plans later this month.) The bridge is as peaceful a spot as you can imagine. I can easily buy into advocates' vision of Clarkton Bridge as a magnet for hikers, bikers, equestrians and birders. If you've ever spent time on the Staunton River, you know just how much of a treasure it is. There are enough historic and scenic touchstones along the Staunton to put together a pretty decent visitor's package, even if for only a day or two.

Is tourism enough to sustain the local economy? No. But it certainly helps.

People struggle all the time to put together compelling reasons for new businesses and individuals to come to Halifax County. As a rural community, we are hampered by not having enough of just about everything - economic opportunities, cultural attractions, schools, roads, population, etc. - to win over outsiders. Oh, sure, there's neat stuff in Southside Virginia, as long as you don't mind traveling all over the place to find it and don't mind the hit-or-miss quality of some of our offerings. But one thing's for sure: tear down Clarkton Bridge now, and you won't have the chance to transform it into something unique to the region ever again.

There is not enough room here to do justice to the efforts so many people have put into saving Clarkton Bridge. Trust me, it's impressive. P.K. Pettus of Charlotte County and Carl Espy, Doug Powell and Martha Coates of Halifax, plus the Boards of Supervisors in both Halifax and Charlotte Counties - these individuals, and many others, have moved heaven and earth to save the bridge.

All involved were plainly blindsided by VDOT's announcement, especially after they worked so diligently to address the issues of safety, ownership and liability that VDOT cited in justifying its decision. Having engaged the bureaucracy with the highest of aims, the Clarkton Bridge Alliance and its allies were sadly laid low.

The last remaining play seems to an appeal to the powers-that-be, starting with Mark Warner, who did, after all, run for governor as a self-proclaimed friend of Southside Virginia. Warner has (more or less) fulfilled his pledge, but now is no time to let him off the hook. It's hard to see how our legislative delegation can be of much help here - neither Clarke Hogan nor Frank Ruff is exactly known as a Friend of Mark - and it doesn't inspire confidence that they seemed to be as in the dark about the decision as everyone else.

It might be up to politically connected Southsiders with Democratic leanings to win a reprieve for Clarkton Bridge. Of course, it's helpful to have a long-time friendship with Whitt Clement, the former Danville-area delegate who now serves as Virginia's Secretary of Transportation.

Hmm. Is Ted Bennett's phone number still listed?