The C&O once had a massive rail yard stretching east from the bridge. In the early 1990s, it was largely converted to an office park.
To help make "Belmont unAbridged" work, this one-lane railroad underpass on nearby 4th Street would be expanded (for an untold sum).
There's a grass roots community movement calling for the re-design of the east end of the downtown area, creating a "gateway" ("Gait-Way," actually, to emphasize pedestrianism) from Belmont that would dovetail into the Downtown Mall in a less car-centric, more pedestrian-friendly way. There's just one problem: there's a big bridge in the way.
In 2003, the City determined that the circa-1961 Belmont Bridge was “rapidly deteriorating,” due to corrosion of the reinforcing steel in the bridge deck that has been weakening the concrete piers. Since then, countless hours of planning have gone into preparations for the eventual replacement of the bridge, as well as $210,000 in temporary repairs and another $714,000 to MMM Design Group, the Norfolk-based engineering and design firm that determined the bridge needed replacing, and later won the contract to design a new one. The new bridge is expected to cost $14.5 million.
Last year, replacing the Belmont Bridge was identified as the City’s number one priority for transportation projects, as they hope to secure as much as $12.8 million in state and federal funds for project. So far, the City has been allocated $6.1 million in federal-state aid. The estimated deadline for an approved design for the bridge is in late 2013, with construction beginning the following year– if the remaining funds are allocated.
Seeking community input, the City held a series of public meetings and design charrettes, and presented preliminary design plans for the new bridge last September. Citizen reaction, especially from Belmont residents, was lukewarm. Instead of another "highway-style" bridge, many expressed a desire for a less hulking expanse of roadway (the current bridge accommodates four lanes) that would provide a more pedestrian-friendly gaitway.
In January, a design contest for the new bridge was held that mobilized nearly all the faculty and staff at UVA's School of Architecture in an effort dubbed "Belmont Vortex." Led by a renowned visiting architect from Spain, the contest elicited proposals from 29 teams of students and 30 faculty members.
In the end, the jury, made up of A-School faculty and Belmont residents, selected a design that called for removing the Belmont Bridge.
Yes, you heard that right.
"We realized that the current bridge acts as a barrier and not a connector," says Kate Martin, one 15 UVA architecture grad students who worked on the winning design. "It's a giant separator between two beautiful and historic neighborhoods."
The triumphant design team envisioned an at-grade crossing over the Buckingham Branch, a freight railroad that leases the line from CSX. The design also calls for removing the nTelos Wireless Pavilion and relocating it to a vacant part of Frank Ix property along Monticello Avenue. All this would make room for a large Farmer's Market, public orchards, park space, and more mixed-use development on the old bridge easements, something more consistent with what famed designer Lawrence Halprin had in mind for that end of the Downtown Mall.
"I think it would be difficult to convince government officials that a pedestrian-centric design should be chosen instead of an automobile-centric design," says Martin.
You think? Former local journalist Rey Barry calls the idea "lunacy."
"Rather than move traffic, they want to jam it," says Barry. "Where improvement is needed, their answer is a kinky proposition based on abstractions that are fun in classrooms but ignore reality."
One government official with whom the Hook spoke wasn't as blunt but was no less critical of the no-bridge idea ultimately branding it "fanciful and unworkable."
As for relocating the Pavilion, that could be the most unworkable part of the plan because, as Pavilion manager Kirby Hutto points out, they have a lease that runs until 2034.
"I would need to revisit our lease to see if there is any language about the City asking us to move out before then," says Hutto. "But I know our attorneys did a very good job of protecting our interests throughout the lease negotiations."
Besides requiring private land for a relocated nTelos Pavilion, the design also grabs an entire city block containing private property occupied by Beck-Cohen HVAC company and other businesses and assessed at a combined $2.6 million.
So, have the A-school folks lost their marbles? Or have they offered the City a unique vision that could transform downtown for the better? Even the winning design team knew they were headed off the beaten path.
"My team every now and then would say, 'Wait, are we seriously going into this bridge competition without a bridge?'" says Martin. "But I do think that it is the best option. And I think a city like Charlottesville is just the place to take a stand on this important subject."
What about the trains?
While the ideas coming from the A-school may be innovative, how realistic are they? In their excitement over the radical no-bridge design, some supporters may have overlooked just how many vehicles use it and how many trains pass under it.
Brian Wimer, the Belmont resident and film-maker credited with spear-heading the design contest, recently penned an opinion piece in the C-Ville Weekly arguing that no bridge was needed because train traffic would decrease as did demand for coal did.
"So, let’s back-track logically: No coal … no trains … no bridge," Wimer wrote.
While it's true that domestic coal sales have fallen as utilities opt for cleaner and, sometimes, cheaper alternatives, the CSX coal export business has tripled in the past five years with CSX buying 7,000 new coal cars to better serve its coal piers in Newport News.
Steve Powell, president of the Buckingham Branch Railroad, notes that the long trains Charlottesvillians can see daily are empty CSX cars headed west to the coalfields. CSX uses them to handle overflow traffic from their James River line, which is the one all of the loaded coal trains use because it is more level and doesn't have to deal with Afton Mountain. In fact, except for times when the C&O/CSX has been repairing the James River line, there hasn't been a loaded, eastbound coal train through Charlottesville since the 1920s or 30s, when the James River line was built.
The CSX trains operate on an as-needed basis, so they have no set schedule either. On a slow day, Powell says, three CSX trains might run. On a busy day, 10 trains. On average, he says, about seven trains a day pass through Charlottesville. Buckingham Branch itself hauls freight and serves mainly local industries between Doswell/Ashland and Clifton Forge with two trips a day, one east and one west, and no set schedule.
The Buckingham Branch also has its yard beneath the Belmont Bridge, five tracks where the railroad can string cars together and perform repairs.
"There's a lot of moves to set up a train," says Powell. "Sometimes this goes on for an hour, and they pass back and forth under the bridge a dozen times."
Then there's Amtrak, which runs a passengers train called the Cardinal on the line twice a day, three times a week. However, Amtrak and rail advocates have been pushing hard to run the Cardinal seven times a week. Indeed, a big part of President Obama's transportation plan includes more passenger rail service and high speed trains. More freight trains are part of the plan too.
"There's a trend toward more rail use for freight," says Powell, both because its more efficient and greener. "For example, one rail car equals four trucks on the road. So, a 150-car train– that would be 600 trucks."
Powell also says there's been a national trend toward eliminating crossings for safety reasons. Indeed, while not alarming, according to Federal Railroad Administration data, there were 1,211 incidents at crossings that led to fatalities or injuries in 2011. Virginia, too, has rules in place to encourage the reduction of at-grade crossings.
Back in January 2008, a westbound Amtrak Cardinal struck a car at the crossing near the X Lounge, delaying traffic and 192 train passengers for 65 minutes. The driver's car was totaled, but the driver, who had a history of traffic violations, walked away. He was later cited for disregard of a railroad traffic signal.
"Getting rid of the bridge and putting an at-grade crossing there would be contrary to every effort in the country to eliminate them," says Powell.
What about the traffic?
While City Councilor Dave Norris finds the no-bridge design appealing, specifically the idea of freeing up the City land beneath it for mixed-use development, he worries about traffic.
"That road is a major in-town artery," says Norris, "and given the level of railroad activity on that line I would be reluctant to have all the other traffic clogged up every time a train comes through."
As former journalist Barry mentions, it's one of the most heavily-used auto routes over the rail line as it weaves through town, especially on the east side. According to Virginia Transportation Department data, 18,000 vehicles pass over the bridge each day. By comparison, the at-grade crossing where Meade Avenue and Carlton Road meet– which often causes traffic tie-ups– sees just 8,000 vehicles a day.
Still, not all public officials consider the no-bridge idea lunacy.
"I love the idea of no bridge," says newly elected City Councilor Dede Smith.
When she was campaigning last year, Smith says she stopped in to see Chris Gibson of Gibson's Grocery, which occupies the northeast corner of Avon Street and Hinton Avenue.
"Chris grew up in that area and remembers when there were many more trains than there are now," says Smith. "I remember him speculating at that time, 'what if there were no bridge?'"
Smith thinks the idea would open up many more attractive possibilities for redevelopment but says she recognizes the difficulty of working with the railroad.
"But then, we'll never know if we don't ask," she says.
Do we really need that bridge?
While removing the bridge might seem insane to some, some think it would be insane not to.
Daniel Bluestone, an A-School faculty advisor on the winning design, points out that the circa-1961 bridge was built at a time when there was a much larger rail yard beneath the bridge and as many as one hundred trains passing through each day.
"I think it's fanciful to think that we should be spending $14.5 million to build a highway bridge over a railroad track that has perhaps five to seven trains a day," says Bluestone, who calls the proposed highway bridge design "insane."
Today, while the current train traffic might mean a five- to seven-minute wait from time to time when the big, empty coal cars pass by, Bluestone doesn't see it as a major inconvenience that would seriously tie up traffic. Besides, he says that their design calls for signals to direct traffic to other nearby passages: the Ridge Street bridge or to a (widened) underpass at nearby Fourth Street.
While the City isn't embracing the no-bridge concept by any means (to do so would be a difficult political pill to swallow, as $1.2 million in tax dollars has already been spent planning for a bridge), City Council recently allocated $150,000 to study possible redevelopment of that part of town. In addition, a committee has been formed to look at alternative bridge designs based on the ideas that emerged from the design competition.
"We will look seriously at the designs," says neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert, who is organizing the committee. "We will have a working group of our design team and two members of the UVA faculty to review the plans and work to see what we can incorporate."
In the meantime, the current design process is on hold, says Norris, who believes there is strong interest among at least two or three Councilors in revisiting it.
"But time will tell," he says.
Though the jury selected perhaps the most radical transfiguration for the bridge location, other prize-winning entries retained a bridge, but called for attaching a new pedestrian bridge to the Mall, using City land beneath and around the bridge for parks, gardens, pedestrian and bike ways (and even overlooks to watch the trains go by), features that would make the official "highway" style bridge more people-friendly.
Of course, any major re-thinking of the project– like simply tearing down the bridge– might put the allocation of state-federal money in jeopardy, and at the least would require the City to re-apply for transportation funds. On the other hand, not building a new bridge might allow the City to save money and re-direct those transportation funds to other projects, all while making downtown more dynamic.
"I think the point of this competition was to suggest what ought to be there," says grad student winner Martin. "The point is that things like traffic patterns can be modified to suit the community's desires. We should not limit the scope of a vision on how we can improve a place in order to accommodate traffic."
Indeed, it was the visionary and radical idea of closing off nine blocks on Main Street– arguably more disruptive to traffic flow than removing the Belmont Bridge– that gave Charlottesville its Downtown Mall, which no one now would call fanciful or lunatic– though many did at the time. What's more, sections of the Belmont Bridge have already been removed, as off ramps that flowed into Water & Main Streets were clipped– most recently in 1993 for the LexisNexis tunnel.
So, should the City simply take the free government money to build a new bridge, or embrace another bold vision for developing downtown Charlottesville?
"If the people of Charlottesville had freedom of choice as to the use of this [federal-state money], it is doubtful they would put it in a new bridge," reads an editorial in the Daily Progress, critical that the lure of federal-state aid might be driving the construction of the new Belmont Bridge. "There is a strong case for more local control over the use of our money in such matters."
The editorial mentions that the growing traffic problems at other locations, fixing school infrastructure, or perhaps saving for the great expense of assuring that our water supply is secure, might be wiser ways to spend our money.
The date of the editorial? May 7, 1957.
Be sure to read next week's Hook, when we investigate whether or not the Belmont Bridge needs to be replaced at all.