NEWS- Bridge out: Why Advance Mills' span is coming down


A routine inspection in April revealed deterioration in the steel trusses that resulted in the bridge's indefinite closing.
FILE PHOTO BY ADAM SORENSEN

A one-lane bridge that's served as a northern Albemarle landmark for more than 60 years has taken its final bow. The Virginia Department of Transportation will soon demolish the structure that carries Route 743 across the north fork of the Rivanna River in the village of Advance Mills near Earlysville, making way for a temporary bridge scheduled to open in the early spring of 2008, with a permanent replacement tentatively slated to open in the fall of 2010. 

The 209-foot-long bridge was initially closed this spring when a routine visual inspection revealed structural deterioration that rendered its steel truss structure unsafe for vehicles.

"The cost to repair it continually, just to maintain it at its current three-ton limit, had not become financially prudent," says VDOT spokesperson Lou Hatter. "It was old, and vehicles that exceeded the three-ton limit kept going over the bridge, which certainly contributed to the damage."

To watch this rural landmark relegated to the scrap heap has been a sad thing for many locals.

"These steel truss bridges are a dying breed," says local historian Steven Meeks. "It's a shame they can't save a couple of them for posterity, especially in a historic district like Advance Mills."

The original bridge was state of the art when Pennsylvania's Carnegie Steel Company first constructed it around the turn of the century, but Albemarle was not its original home. Meeks says the bridge initially spanned a waterway in mountainous Alleghany County. After a flood washed out the wooden bridge in Advance Mills, the state relocated it in 1943.

"That was a really common practice," explains Meeks, an admitted fan of steel truss bridges, of which this was Albemarle's largest surviving example.

"They were easy to disassemble and re-erect like an erector set," Meeks says, "which speaks to how well they were built in the first place."

The bridge remains a cornerstone of the childhood memories of Rod Ballard, son of the late Ray and Frances Ballard, who operated the nearby Advance Mills Supply country store from 1948 to 1995. In particular, Ballard recalls how strong the wooden-decked bridge stood in the face of a nature's wrath.

"I remember when Hurricane Camille hit [in 1969]," says Ballard. "The river got so high it lapped over top of the bridge, but it didn't do any damage." 

As VDOT has repaired the bridge for the last decade, its fate became clear to Advance Mills residents when the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors put replacing the bridge in its Secondary Six-Year Improvement Plan after it had to be closed for repairs again in May 2006. After the bridge was open for a few more months, a semi-annual inspection in April of this year showed the latest damages, and VDOT announced the permanent closure.

As for what a replacement will look like, some locals say that if the current bridge can't be salvaged, the replacement design should still retain that old-timey feel.

"It would be difficult to do, bringing it up to 21st century standards," says Meeks, "but it would be nice for whatever they put back to resemble the old bridge and not impact the nature of the historic district."

"The more it can maintain the aesthetics of the old bridge, the better," say Ballard. "You'd hate for it to just be some steel and concrete span."

Hatter says it's "unlikely" VDOT will build another steel-truss bridge, but he assures that the state has implemented some design elements in past projects that can integrate a new bridge into its surroundings.

"We constructed a concrete bridge at Kelly's Ford on the Fauquier-Culpeper County line, where we poured the concrete into a form and painted it the color of the surrounding rock," says Hatter. "It gives the impression that it's a stone bridge with mortared joints. So, we can give it an aesthetic treatment while still bringing it to the standard of today's highways."

At the time of its closing, the Advance Mill Bridge was carrying 1,023 vehicles per day; VDOT estimates that the new bridge will carry 1,530 by the year 2022.

At a public meeting last Thursday, October 11, VDOT showed residents three proposals for the location of the new bridge, only one of which suggests the new bridge should follow the footprint of the old one.

Currently, VDOT is accepting public comment on the location and design. Citizens with an opinion can be heard from now until Monday, October 22 at a VDOT representative's email address: allan.sumpter@vdot.virginia.gov. Hatter says the final decision will rest jointly with VDOT and the County.

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3 comments

WHOA why hasn't anyone mentioned weight capacity of the new bridge?

Who cares where it is or what it looks like. What about function?

Function like supporting the weight of a tanker truck when a house is burning.

Or supporting 50 dump trucks per day so they don't have to go to highway 29 and drive an extra 20 miles each way. Vehicles like big trucks that get 4 miles per gallon need short routes. That's a matter of natinal security and air quality, much bigger issue than these locals that think they are on sacred ground.

It's not sacred ground. It's Advance Mills, Virginis whatever that is. Whoopdy doo.

If you make a big bridge and want to encourage trucks, you'd better do something about those curves about 1/2 mile north of the bridge too.

Are there that many dump trucks that actually have to make that drive?

It is scary to see the Tractor Trailers at night when there is little traffic on 29 flying down the lower part of Earlysville Road just to avoid the lights on 29.

Sorry, but 743 is a 700-level road. It isn't a main artery for truck traffic. That's a road called 29 that doesn't have many curves on it...

Mad Hatter must be a mad hatter or totally unfamiliar with the road just north of the bridge. It would probably cost a small fortune to straighten out those curves for the use of the imaginary fleet of dump trucks just itching to use Advance Mills Rd instead of 29. Heck, why not just make it part of an interstate spur, perhaps call it I-264, to connect 29 and I-64. You could run it through Ivy, Earlysville, Advance Mills and Ruckersville. At least it would divert heavy traffic from 29, right?? Perhaps keep them from Mad Hatter's backyard. Yeah, right.

Then perhaps turn CHO into an international hub for some major carrier and run 777s non-stop to Heathrow and Narita. While you're at it, open a major outlet mall near Earlysville, maybe call it Earlysville Mills.

Build it and they will come.