June 17, 2004

The Battle For Clarkton Bridge

Backers Rally For Bridge

Concerned citizens will stage a last ditch effort this Sunday afternoon to save the endangered Clarkton Bridge between Halifax and Charlotte Counties.

Jack Dunavant, head of Southside Concerned Citizens, is asking supporters of the campaign to save the historic 102-year-old structure to gather at the bridge on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., one day before the demolition process is scheduled to get underway on Monday, June 21.

Also, local preservationists and officials will travel to Richmond this morning for a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, where they will make their plea to save the span.

Douglas Powell of Halifax, a founding member of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance, said the group hopes to convince the CTB that VDOT abruptly — and unjustifiably — switched gears in the ongoing negotiations to save Clarkton Bridge.

“We were blindsided thinking what was going on for six months was adequate to meet the requirements of VDOT and out of the clear blue someone comes forth and says we haven’t (done so),” said Powell.

Powell faulted VDOT for changing course on the bridge’s future in the midst of talks with local governments and said that if efforts to save the bridge weren’t deemed adequate by VDOT, someone should have said so.

“VDOT was telling the Board (of Supervisors) that things were progressing,” said Powell. The sudden decision to demolish the bridge “tells me that someone wasn’t in the loop, someone didn’t blow the whistle to say that what you’re (local governments) doing isn’t enough.”

While advocates are attempting to whip up public support for saving the bridge, they face a difficult task. According to Powell and others, the Warner Administration has not backed off its plans for demolition even in the face of a groundswell of public opposition.

“Maybe it’s too late, maybe it’s not,” said Powell.

Responding to letters, phone calls and e-mails, the Warner Administration, including Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement, has signaled that the decision on Clarkton Bridge will stand.

“Governor Warner has said Secretary Clement would be speaking for him,” said Powell. “Clement has come back and said there are concerns (of VDOT) that have not been met … Basically he’s telling people it was his decision and he stands behind it and behind the VDOT staff and that’s the bottom line.
“He’s saying it’s irrevocable.”

The bridge’s fate appeared to be sealed Wednesday, June 2 when VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet announced that the department would move forward to demolish the structure. Shucet cited major structural damage to the bridge which he said could lead to its eventual collapse.

Shucet’s announcement shocked members of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance who negotiated with VDOT for six months to have the bridge taken over for interim ownership by APVA Preservation Virginia. Alliance members said they worked with VDOT to satisfy its concerns over safety and liability issues and to resolve the broader question of permanent ownership of the bridge once VDOT relinquished control. The Alliance presented a blueprint to use the structure for a biking, hiking and recreational trail between Charlotte and Halifax Counties. Alliance members said local VDOT officials had been very helpful in their efforts.

Governing bodies of both Halifax and Charlotte have lent their support to the Alliance’s efforts, although Powell pointed out that neither board has offered a solid financial commitment to pay for future maintenance of the bridge.

“If the two boards would commit to a reasonable amount of funding to ensure it will be maintained, we’d have a good shot (at saving) it,” said Powell, who added that an annual pledge of $15,000 from both counties “is a number floating around.” “There are people trying to put that together at the 11th hour,” he added.

In the meantime, the SCC, the Clarkton Bridge Alliance and local officials are hoping to stem the demolish process by creating a show of public support for Clarkton Bridge’s preservation.
Some advocates are also exploring the possibility of legal action to halt the demolition.

“More than one group has explored it. There have been discussions with a group of attorneys, I do know that,” said Powell.
Halifax Town Manager Carl Espy, another member of the alliance, suggested that Dunavant’s group may play a role in any legal effort. “If SCC is stepping up to look at what legal action can be taken for injunctive relief, the Clarkton Bridge Alliance is delighted to have their support.”

The first step, however, is applying public pressure on state officials in whose hands the fate of Clarkton Bridge lies.

“We hope to generate a large crowd on Sunday afternoon to show Richmond VDOT officials that demolishing this bridge is not the way to go,” said Dunavant yesterday. “We have other options that will relieve them of liability while leaving this piece of history for generations to come to enjoy.”