Steel rebar shows through at the widest divot while a circa 2006 patch gleams behind.
There's even a hole at one seam-- almost big enough to drop a deck of cards through.
photo by Hawes Spencer
Fire engines, school buses, and even 18-wheel trucks routinely rumble over the east side of the Belmont Bridge. But not pedestrians.
Since November, east side walkers have been temporarily banned, forced by a chain-link fence to traverse four- to five-lane Avon Street if they wish to cross the bridge, the main southern gateway to downtown. And with an April 4 vote, a City Council majority has decided to spend nearly $15,000 building a permanent barrier to block pedestrians. A Hook investigation, however, finds that Council wasn't given information that might have altered the discussion.
Several times, beginning last fall, City planning director Jim Tolbert has appeared before the City Council to say that fixing the closed sidewalk would cost over $300,000. But what about fixing what's already there?
Bob Fenwick, a professional contractor and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers veteran who's making a second run for a seat on Council, contends that patching the sidewalk makes far better sense.
"We don't have money to throw around," says Fenwick. "If that bridge is strong enough for the vibration and load of heavy trucks, then it should be strong enough for a person. Or several people."
A reporter found that City officials have abandoned the idea of patching. Neither of the two proposals the City recently obtained shows any sign of considering repair, only replacement.
For instance, an estimate from the Virginia Department of Transportation tallies the cost of renting jersey barriers ($19,000) and flagmen ($40,000) while completely demolishing the existing sidewalk ($150,000) and pouring a new 600-foot-long swath of concrete ($78,000). At $336,000, a private contractor came up with a similar total.
While rating the overall structure "poor" and noting that it hasn't been painted in at least 24 years, a recent report by MMM Design Group, the City's consulting engineers, suggested repairing the sidewalks. So why not patch?
Safety, answers Tolbert. The planning director says the bridge is so badly degraded that repair is out of the question.
But that doesn't mean all members of City Council have given up on the idea of fixing the 1962 structure that spans the CSX/Buckingham Branch railroad tracks.
"My preference remains to keep it open for pedestrians," Mayor Dave Norris said at the April 4 meeting.
"We'll be happy to do that," laughed fellow Councilor Satyendra Huja, "if you'll write a check for three hundred thousand dollars."
Councilor Holly Edwards finds little to laugh about. At the same Council meeting, she expressed a grave safety concern, saying she recently witnessed a pedestrian trying to cross Avon Street who narrowly missed getting hit by a car. (Planning director Tolbert noted that a City plan to install user-activated pavement lights should create a safer crossing.)
A moment after this public discussion, Councilor Huja joined Kristin Szakos and David Brown as the 3-2 majority voting to purchase a spear-topped aluminum span from a Howardsville-based company for $14,530.
A reporter's subsequent inquiry finds City engineer Tony Edwards claiming that the time for patching– which he calls a "band-aid"– has passed. He says the level of deterioration means the City might have to go back and make repeated patches, a process which could drive up the cost.
However, a reporter's request for information from the Public Works Department finds that previous sidewalk patching has lasted nearly five years and– at less than $4,000– cost far less than the planned fence.
What Public Works Director Judith Mueller revealed is that the last time the eastern sidewalk got any patching was 2006, the year after the nearby nTelos Wireless Pavilion opened. At that time, she says, both sidewalks were patched for $3,928.
"When they did that last patch," says Fenwick, who lives nearby, "that seemed to work."
Neither the engineering reports nor the earlier amounts spent patching were included in the information handed to Council, and Councilor Holly Edwards doubts it would have swayed any of the five members, who have given the public no timetable for building a the new bridge, which is expected to cost $9.2 million.
Deciding that the public interest might be served with one more dose of information, a reporter recently ventured past the temporary chain-link-fence barriers to document conditions on the eastern sidewalk.
We found that the 2006-era patches cover about 140 square feet. By contrast, the crumbling surfaces currently posing a tripping hazard are smaller: just 40 square feet.
Fenwick says it might take some formwork to support the fix for the one spot where there's an actual hole in the sidewalk, and he figures that 45 bags of Quikrete– which retails for about $4 per bag– could handle the job.
Confronted with the possible economy of patching, City Engineer Tony Edwards stands by his position and notes that deterioration has gotten so bad that plywood panels were installed several years ago under the sidewalks to catch falling concrete chips.
"If you just go in and patch the top, you're not solving the whole problem," says Edwards. "What you see on the surface is just the beginning."
And Joe Schinstock with MMM Design says an in-field review found that such "class A" patching wouldn't return the sidewalk to its original structural integrity because it's gotten infused with destructive chloride after 50 years of salty snow and ice treatments.
Fenwick, however, remains adamant that this be the right time for surface-patching the sidewalk. And maybe even saving the bridge.
Claiming that some City Councilors tend to fling taxpayer money at problems, Fenwick says he can't help but notice that the three fence-choosing Councilors are the same trio who– despite falling local water demand– recently voted to build a massive new reservoir instead of simply dredging the existing one.
"No common sense," says Fenwick. "If the bridge was that dangerous, then they should have stopped traffic."