After more than five months, the old bridge recently came down. It will be another 11 months before the new one opens.
What the new JPA Bridge will look like.
Back in May, just a month into a planned 18-month project, owners of several business located next to the Jefferson Park Avenue bridge replacement complained that the construction was hurting their businesses. Now, they say the JPA project is "killing" their businesses.
Since May, a pedestrian path ran by Wayside Chicken and the JPA Fast Mart, providing some foot traffic past the long-time group of businesses on the corner while a more sturdy temporary pedestrian bridge was being built. In late October, the pedestrian bridge was completed. But there's just one problem. It was built on the other side of the street.
That, says JPA Fast Mart owner Jeff Catlett, just added insult to injury.
"It blows my mind that they've done all this without thinking about the consequences for us," says Catlett, who points out that pedestrians now have to negotiate a veritable obstacle course of bright orange traffic barrels, netting, and white barriers to reach his store.
"Businesswise, this project is killing us."says Fast Mart's manager, Bill Clayton, who put up a big sign in an effort to lure customers through the maze of construction materials.
"It's a convenience store," says a dejected Clayton, "but its not so convenient anymore."
Game day destination
As UVA football fans know, the collection of businesses that hug the bridge's northwestern tip, Wayside, located on the corner of Jefferson Park Avenue and Fontaine Avenue, has always been a convenient place to stop for supplies on the way to a Saturday game. The JPA area has also provided myriad places to park, as homeowners cash in by offering spots within walking distance of Scott Stadium, a walk that has always taken fans right past the Fast Mart.
"Now," says Claytor, "we have a third to a half of the business we used to have on game days."
Catlett, who has been operating the store for 18 years, says that monthly business is off by 70 percent.
"We've been taking in about $60,000 to $70,000 a month for the last 18 years," says Catlett. "Now we're lucky if we do $30,000."
And there's still about a year to go before the $11 million project is completed with a new $11 million, 67-foot wide vehicle and pedestrian viaduct over the tracks of the Norfolk Southern railroad.
While business owners understand the need to replace the 80-year old bridge, they say that not enough was done, by either the Virginia Department of Transportation or the City, to help them survive the 18-month-long construction project. For instance, with $11 million budgeted, Catlett wonders why there wasn't something set aside to help the Wayside businesses weather such a lengthy construction project.
Back in April, amid reports of "severe adverse impacts" as a result of the project, Fry's Spring Neighborhood Association president Hardy Whitten alerted City Council and development staff to the concerns of Wayside business owners.
In a April 21 email, Whitten said the neighborhood expected the City to support the Wayside business as it had other business directly affected by infrastructure repair projects, "such as the re-bricking of the Main St Mall."
Indeed, the City not only re-bricked the Downtown Mall in planned stages, but it funded a $100,000 marketing campaign to lessen the impact on business. However, as City staff point out, unlike the Mall re-bricking, the new JPA bridge is a VDOT, not a City, project. Still, City money is going toward it.
The neighborhood's concerns were forwarded to VDOT's Construction Engineer, Kenneth J. Shirley, who responded by saying he was unaware of what steps were taken during the Mall re-bricking to mitigate business impacts, and that he would be "truly interested" in learning about what had been done. He said a "Business Access" sign was on order, and that "four or five" barrels were removed to improve visibility.
"Should the City agree to place additional signage around and about town," Shirley wrote, "we will be more than glad to consider placement of signs outside the corporate limits."
In recent years, the City has offered to freeze real estate tax rates on two massive construction projects– a new tower called Waterhouse and the old Martha Jefferson Hospital campus– in order to lure multi-million-dollar business into the city limits. But as Wayside Barber Shop owner Bobby Bishop points out, all that's been offered to the Wayside businesses are a few signs.
"They don't care about the little people," says Bishop, busily cutting a Region Ten client's hair free of charge, something he says he has done for the last 30 years.
Five years ago, Bishop, who began in business here in 1960, opened a coffee and ice cream place called Hoo's Brew in the building next door, and while he says the place was "packed with young people" just last year, business has plummeted since construction began. If he had known the what was in store, he says, he never would have opened Hoo's Brew.
"I don't mind going out of business if I'm not doing a good job," says Bishop. "But I don't like being run out of business."
At nearby Wayside Deli and Dürty Nelly's, owner Gary Hagar echos Bishop's concerns, admitting that his businesses are suffering, but he resists getting bitter.
"We'll wade through it as best we can," says Hagar. "We gotta be tough."
Still, those who watch the construction every day say they can't believe how slow it is progressing. On a recent mid-morning visit, a reporter watched three workers move a port-a-potty, as cranes and heavy equipment were all silent. About an hour later, however, they sprang to life with a full crew operating them.
"I've been watching them work on that bridge since they started," says an employee at the Exxon across the street, "and they definitely need a little pep in their step."
So why so long?
In a prepared statement, VDOT, the agency in charge of the project, says that "complex work involving the relocation of utilities" and the replacement of the bridge in such a "tight space" are some reasons for the 18-month timeline. In addition, VDOT explains that having to work around pedestrians and stopping when there's railroad activity below–- as many as 10 trains a day–- has been "cutting up to several hours out of the workday."
"One thing that surprised me is the amount of foundation prep work that is being done," says UVA structural engineering professor Tom Baber. "It appears that a substantial number of drilled piles were being installed. That takes some time, and can slow a project down. My guess is that the extensive foundation work is the main reason for the apparently long construction time."
A major reason for so much foundation, says Baber, is that it is being built over a functioning railroad.
"I can say from personal experience that the railroads won't let you proceed until you have absolutely ensured that their track will not be compromised in any way, shape, or form– even for a short time," says Baber. "They can't afford to have their tracks closed, since closing 25 feet of track is the same as closing 100 miles of track. "
Baber suspects that railroad-based precautions have slowed the project not only during the construction phase but also during the demolition phase. For instance, a landslide during the old pier removal or a section of the old bridge falling on the tracks could disrupt rail traffic.
"The railroad probably has a penalty clause whereby any disruption of rail traffic would result in a pretty stiff fine to the contractor," says Baber.
"The railroad requires that VDOT have a railroad employee on site anytime we're working on or over the railroad right of way," says VDOT spokesperson Lou Hatter. "And they have the authority to stop work on the bridge when trains come through."
Hatter says that all the equipment must be clear of the tracks– including overhead cranes and equipment that may be working along the tracks.
"The time to stop work, remove the equipment, and then restart construction is significant since it happens numerous times each day," says Hatter.
Still, in comparison, the first phase of the Stonefield development project on Route 29, which involves excavating 65 acres of land, building 270,000 square feet of retail space, a town center, a 14-screen theater, and Trader Joe's at a major intersection is scheduled to take five months less than the JPA bridge project.
However, while the new JPA bridge is pretty small compared to a project like Stonefield, Baber thinks the space confinement at the railroad tracks, the smaller crew, and the precautions that need to be taken may actually be slowing the project down in ways that aren't immediately apparent to observers.
Indeed, as Hatter points out, the utilities that ran under the old bridge had to be moved to a temporary structure to maintain utility service, and those utilities will be moved back onto the new bridge once that is built.
Other bridge projects
Indeed, while the project challenge that UVA's Baber mentions is real, other similar projects provide a contrast in planning and execution.
For instance, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a 50 million-dollar bridge project involving the construction of two bridges over Norfolk Southern rail tracks is expected to take just six months longer than the JPA project. Then there's the Milton-Madison Bridge Project being built by the Indiana Department of Transportation that crosses the Ohio River, connecting Milton, Kentucky and Madison, Indiana.
The project was recently voted one of the top ten bridge projects in the country by Roads & Bridges magazine. Using a method called "truss sliding," a new 2,400-foot-long steel truss and road deck will be run across the Ohio River beside the old bridge on temporary bridge towers, providing a route for traffic and then "slid" to the new bridge towers when they are completed. While total construction may commensurate with the JPA Bridge project, the halt on traffic will be dramatically shorter: just 10 days.
However, as Hatter points out, the Milton-Madison bridge project is a much larger bridge being built in an area that allows the old span to remain in service while the new structure is being built on a new alignment parallel to the old bridge.
"The technique you describe is not one that would be used on a bridge of the size and location of the JPA bridge," says Hatter.
The Hook asked Neighborhood Development Chief Jim Tolbert, as well as all five City Councilors, to respond to the concerns of Wayside business owners, but the task was handed off to City spokesperson Ric Barrick, who says the City is "sympathetic" to their business needs.
"We're going to be surveying surrounding businesses to assess the gravity of the challenge," says Barrick. "Meanwhile, we've instructed VDOT to enhance signage and improve access."
In addition, Barrick says the City has encouraged the local media to run stories about the Wayside businesses and has ordered food for five of the City's recent "town hall" dinners from Wayside Chicken and the JPA Fast Mart.
"We're currently working with the appropriate UVA departments to encourage them to use those businesses," says Barrick, "and we are looking into a possible matching funds advertising campaign to offer those businesses."
For businesses owners, however, that may be too little, too late.
"I know we need the bridge, and I'm sure there's some reason why they put the pedestrian bridge on the other side of the street," says Catlett, "but we received no real help from the City or VDOT. Next time, I hope they think about that."
–This story was originally published online on November 3.