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Laying out the future at Clarkton Bridge

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Steel bands (above) help to keep a steel caisson pier from splitting apart. The turn-of-the century Clarkston Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the last metal truss bridge in Virginia to be supported by steel columns. The polygonal dual trusses also are considered to be historically significant. (VDOT photos) / September 25, 2017
A year after VDOT began the process of taking it down, an agreement to preserve the legacy of Clarkton Bridge — if not the 115-year-old structure itself — has taken shape.

VDOT and interested stakeholders have agreed to create a viewing platform high above the Staunton River on the Charlotte County side of the bridge, enhance a nearby public boat launch area for paddling enthusiasts and possibly create a similar boat access site on the Halifax County riverbank.

Perhaps more sweeping is another provision contained in a draft Memorandum of Agreement between VDOT and stakeholders: a pledge by the department to maintain a replacement for Clarkton Bridge.

The idea among some stakeholders is to secure funding — drawn from private and possibly public sources — to build a new pedestrian bridge that evokes the graceful original, with its dual steel trusses rising high above the clear-flowing river.

VDOT’s agreement to take the replacement bridge into the state roads system — provided that the span is built to VDOT standards — represents a big commitment by the highway department, said P.K. Pettus of Charlotte County, one of a handful of local activists who have been meeting with VDOT officials over the past year to see what can be done to preserve Clarkton Bridge. With VDOT’s pledge in hand, outside groups and individuals can approach funding sources such as private foundations with a credible plan to not only erect a replacement bridge, but guarantee its future viability.

“This is major, something we’ve never had before,” said Pettus, who has been joined in the year-long talks with VDOT by Halifax town manager Carl Espy and Halifax County Historical Society president Barbara Bass. Pettus praised VDOT’s willingness to involve the public in discussions of the bridge’s future: “The way they have done this is exemplary.”

Not all parties agree with VDOT’s call to demolish Clarkton Bridge, which has been closed to vehicular traffic since 2003 and pedestrian foot traffic in 2015 as structural conditions worsened. Jack Dunavant, a Halifax Town Council member and leader of We The People, which was involved in a prior effort to save Clarkton Bridge in the early 2000s, argues that VDOT has done a poor job keeping up the bridge and ought to step in now to save it.

“My general assessment of Clarkton Bridge us that it is not in any eminent danger of failure in any regard,” wrote Dunavant in a statement presented to VDOT last week titled “A General Critique and Analysis of Efforts to Destroy Clarkton Bridge.” Referring to a report that the department issued a year ago on the bridge’s poor state, Dunavant said that while the description was “very revealing and accurate in its presentation, I find its conclusions and recommendations to be both disturbing and questionable.

“To put it very bluntly, We The People of Virginia are totally opposed to any efforts to remove Clarkton Bridge until a more complete and unbiased analysis of its condition determines that the trusses themselves are structurally unsafe.”

At a public meeting Thursday night in Brookneal to discuss plans for Clarkton Bridge, VDOT Lynchburg District Engineer Christopher Winstead said the agency would carefully review Dunavant’s letter and an accompanying technical evaluation — Dunavant is a civil engineer and paving company owner — and provide a response. “We’ll see what kinds of comments we get and we’ll get back to Jack before we do anything,” said Winstead. He added, “He’s proposed some interesting things that could be done, but there are costs associated with that.”

VDOT will continue to accept public comments on Clarkton Bridge through Oct. 1, and it will take months before the department makes a final decision on the bridge or the Memorandum of Agreement with outside stakeholders, Winstead added.

The price to keep or replace Clarkton will be daunting. VDOT has pledged $900,000 toward any renovation or replacement project, an amount equal to the cost of demolishing the span. Other parties would be responsible for coming up with the required money to preserve a span over the Staunton at the Route 620 site.

VDOT estimates that it would take around $11 million to renovate the existing structure for trail users such as hikers, horseback riders and bird watchers. A new vehicular bridge would cost around $7 million, according to department estimates, while a new pedestrian bridge would run around $6 million.

In light of the high costs, VDOT is agreeing only to give outside stakeholders a chance to save their bridge on their own. “It’s preserving the opportunity to preserve the legacy” of Clarkton Bridge, rather than saving the bridge outright, that lies at the heart of VDOT’s commitment, said Tony Opperman with VDOT’s Environmental Division in Richmond. Opperman suggested that a new truss bridge is the most viable alternative going forward, and he questioned the wisdom of trying to save the existing structure: “When you have to replace 70 or 80 percent, is it a restoration, or is it just building a new bridge?” he asked.

A 2015 safety inspection revealed 73 failed rivets on Clarkton’s spindly steel caisson piers — that is more rivet defects than with all the other bridges in the Lynchburg District combined — and extensive deterioration of the top chords of the steel trusses. To keep the caissons from cracking open wider, VDOT wrapped the piers in steel bands. Access to the bridge has been closed off since August 2015.

Clarkton is in “critical condition,” said Winstead.

Pettus and other members of the citizen stakeholder group — each a member of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance that sprang up a decade ago — hired a Minnesota consultant to provide an independent assessment of the bridge’s structural integrity. Largely agreeing with VDOT’s conclusions, the outside engineer, Steve Olsen, suggested ideas for stabilizing the structure such as encasing the caisson piers in concrete. In his report, Olsen acknowledged that such measures could detract from Clarkton’s historic and visual appeal.

In the proposed Memorandum of Agreement, VDOT has agreed to create a viewing platform overlooking the river, perched on top of caissons that rise up from the riverbank on the Charlotte side. VDOT also will salvage elements of the historic bridge — such as parts of the caissons, truss joints and eye bars — for public display, interpretation and research.

The department also pledges to maintain access to a DGIF boat launch in Charlotte and place heritage tourism signage on both sides of the river. The land on the Halifax side is privately owned, but Winstead expressed interest in working with landowners to establish a public boat access site. “It’s challenging because of the bluff there,” he cautioned.

VDOT has engaged stakeholders in what is known as a Section 106 consultation to assess the impact on historic preservation, as required under the 1973 Clean Water Act. The process is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and involves Charlotte and Halifax county officials, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the private group Preservation Virginia, the Halifax County Historical Society and individual citizens.

One of those citizens is Kathy Liston, a Charlotte County resident who lives with her husband Earl in sight of the bridge. Attending Thursday’s public meeting in Brookneal, Liston recalled driving over Clarkton Bridge years ago at her husband’s prompting, shortly after they moved to the community. “I was like, I don’t know about that,” said Liston. “This was back when you could feel it shake. The next day, I read in the newspaper that the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic. I told Earl that that bridge was not to be trusted.”

Despite that experience, Liston is a staunch advocate of preserving Clarkton. “In a perfect world we’d keep that old bridge,” she said. “But this isn’t a perfect world.” Even if it cannot be replaced, Liston said she was pleased that VDOT will preserve the right-of-way leading up to the bridge and build the viewing platform: “Hiking and biking could be really nice. But at least we’re preserving that much [an overlook].

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful spot,” she said.

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