Git 'er blocked: City picks fencing, not fixing, Belmont Bridge

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."

This story is a part of the Which way for Belmont Bridge? special.


So...City staff presents to City Council only the most expensive options, either disregarding or ignoring more practical and far less expensive possibilities?

Everybody who is even remotely surprised please raise your hand! One day we can only hope these people will wake up and realize that it isn't their money. It's ours! Every taxpayer should be outraged by this kind of thing, and demand changes.

Thank goodness we'll have an election soon, and the Huja, Brown, Szakos voting block will be eliminated.

Why can't they just lay down 2" thick concrete slabs like stepping stones and a turnstile at each end saying no bucycles?

Why can't they get twenty foot lengths of 5/4 decking and and screw them down lengthwise?

Why can't they put chicken wire in the holes and lay asphalt like they do all over Washington DC.

The inability of the city to find an inexpensive temporary fix is a reflection on their abilities to run the rest of the city.

So the only options presented to council were complete replacement of the whole sidewalk @ $300,000 or a fence for $15,000. despite the fact that the whole bridge is scheduled for replacement? Were they planning on leaving the new sidewalk and demolishing the rest of the bridge? No, it would be removed too, so why not just patch it for a few thousand dollars and hope it last for a few years? The level of incompetence among department heads in this City is staggering.
Oh, and: "While rating the overall structure "poor" and noting that it hasn't been painted in at least 24 years..."
Who decided to stop maintaining this bridge? Its only 50 years old but has been left to rot for half that time? No one thought it wise to continue to care for a $9,000,000.00 piece of public infrastructure?

Even if one were to accept the fact that some shoring up or replacement might still be necessary for the plywood beneath the bridge, that still doesn't answer the obvious question: how much would that add to the total required to merely patch the bridge? Saying that patching isn't the only issue and dismissing a seemingly sensible solution outright makes me think that tax dollars are being wasted by people who can't be bothered to get all the facts before making a decision. My guess is that the total still comes in far below the $15K fence, while not unnecessarily requiring a pedestrian to cross busy Avon St. twice when the intention was to remain on the east side of the street.

What happens when the extra wear and tear created causes trip hazards on the sidewalk on the other side of the bridge? Are they planning to repair it? Or close it off too and send pedestrians to 4th St. or Meade ave?

And this is the entrance to the city's downtown. Ugly ugly ugly --what bird brain would allow this ?

Why does Jim Tolbert still have a job?

" By 1957 City Council gave the “green light” for a new steel girder bridge...
Construction of the new bridge started in 1961 and finished with the dismantling of the old bridge in 1962. "
(from the link above )

Why should a 50 year old bridge be replaced ? We need new leaders in this town that know how to do routine maintenance on our infrastructure, so they are not continually destroying what is paid for and starting over. There is no excuse for the neglect that has occurred over the years of our water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure. Too many projects have sucked up tax dollars to add surface appeal without paying attention to what lies beneath.

Often bureaucrats want to add new infrastructure to their resumes and not do the day to day work of maintaining what we already have. It is up to us to elect those who get this and are willing to fire staff who don't.

Ah yes, the Belmont Neighborhood and its long time residents get screwed again. The most pedestrian oriented green designed neighborhood int eh City, and the City can't help but try and destroy it.

Assualt it with over amplified noise form the Pavillion. Take their path from them to walk downtown.

Take their money and give it to the DT Mall for rebricking.

Take their money for their bridge and give it to JPA.

Now we'll take their sidewalks from them.

Stuff their business district with tons of restaurants and nightclubs, but offer no police monitoring like the ST Mall.

It's amazing. It really defies me why this one neighborhood just continually gets cheated and crapped on.

I think that entire part of town should offer to become it's own little village by law.

Work on your delivery Old Timer. I don't totally disagree with some of the points you have made, but the way you say it makes you sound like a bratty kid instead of a "longtime" resident. Tighten up.

Work on your delivery Old Timer. I don't totally disagree with some of the points you have made, but the way you say it makes you sound like a bratty kid instead of a "longtime" resident. Tighten up.

I wonder how much the city will spend defending itself from a wrongful death lawsuit when a pedestrian gets killed crossing avon?

Find a cheaper alternative.. they are out there.

Why not screw down plywood and spray it with non skid paint?
50 sheets of plywood @35 a sheet 1750.00
screws 500.00
non skid paint 2000.00
labor (2 guys 2 weeks 4000.00
Total 8250.00

sad very sad...

There are no state transportation funds budgeted to replace this bridge until 2018 ( at the earliest) and the City contribution dropped by 1million when the JPA bridge project went over budget.

The chances of the $9+ million replacement cost ( sure to be more in 7 years) materializing is questionable.

To spend $14,000 to keep the sidewalk closed to pedestrians for 7 or more years, instead of fixing it to allow foot traffic makes no sense. Holly Edwards and Dave Norris were correct to oppose this and lobby to keep the sidewalk open.

This issue needs further investigation !

reality bites,

Ho hum. Focusing on the tone of sarcasm over the items at hand. Mighty big of you to show us what a 'real' adult discussion would do. At least I pay attention to the issues.

I've watched that neighborhood get screwed for the last 30+ years.

Get back to me when you can actually comment on the material without using double negatives.

Look at the picture of the bridge, this was a major construction project only 49 years ago. I want to see the evidence that it needs to be replaced and not from MMM, the consultants that want to design a new bridge. We've been down that road before with Gannett Fleming, the dam firm that we spent millions paying so that they could tell us- we needed a new dam and dredging cost over 200 million, and then got the contract to design it.

Thanks Mr. Spencer, for giving voice to many important questions that should be answered before anyone spends over 9 million dollars replacing this bridge, and decides to keep the sidewalk closed indefinitely.

You folks are right on target. Repair, reuse, recycle, correct? "Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without", isn't that your mother told you? The idea that <$8000 for a repair is not even considered speaks volumes. I'm "making do" with a series of clunkers because I can't afford to buy new, and my budget is so tight it squeaks when I walk! If chlorides are the problem the flush the chlorides out then repair, and STOP using chlorides! If the bridge hasn't been PAINTED in 24 years then PAINT IT! And the comment on downtown's southern gateway is spot on. All we need is some chain link, maybe a few barricades and big "NO TRESPASSING" signs so that this approach will have all of the earmarks of a blighted neighborhood in Philly or Bridgeport. Decades ago NYC decided that one way to reverse urban decay was to clean up the messes as soon as they appeared - subway cars, neighborhoods, public places... It worked. This city's failure (or stubborn refusal) to fix something as easy as this speaks volumes. Glad I'm not an rich outsider looking to locate a business in this town. I'd think twice if that's the best we can do.

I don't even understand why it needs to be closed. It isn't going to collapse. If you closed every sidewalk in Charlottesville that was rough you would close a lot of sidewalks. This is ridiculous.

Take the "art" in place budget and put it toward the sidewall, or better yet have one of those welfare "artist" pour a new sidewalk. The city staff would go nuts for that.

I would like to see the staff names attached to these projects, I think we should demand it. Give me a name (whose salary I pay) so I can talk with them directly.
All I hear when things go bad is Staff this and that. I want printed names with each project.

deleted by moderator

What. A. Gripefest.

How many of the commenters have actually WALKED across the bridge on the east side? Why would anyone walk on that side? EVERYBODY chooses to cross Avon and use the west side of the bridge. The city is saving money by doing this. Now that the east side of this bridge is closed, all of a sudden it's more sacred than the east side of McIntire park and the ragged MTN reservoir's environs?

Some people just like to complain.....

How much money is teh city spending RIGHT NOW on Main Street for new street lights? Isn't safety more important than fake antique street lights someplace there is already plenty of light at night? Belmont is the neighborhood people choose when they want to walk to get around. Makes no sense at all to cut it off from the rest of town. Charottesville world class greenwash, but nothing real when it comes to making the city walkable.

I'd like to know how much is spent paving city streets that are little traveled and not in bad shape. My guess is well over 100 thousand, but does anyone know ? I recently watched a crew of at least 10 work for an entire week, with several pieces of heavy equipment, pave a street in our neighborhood. How much did that cost ?

Repairing this sidewalk couldn't possibly be that expensive and to keep it closed for almost a decade seems preposterous.

Paint it now and fix it . The Belmont Bridge is an entrance corridor- what are they thinking ?

No surprise at all. Until we run Dave and his like minded councilors out of office fiscal incompetence will continue. Just wait until 3-5 years from now when the city is really broke and they pass the bill along to city residents via taxes on everything from your house, car, parking on city streets, meals ( already around 10% ) and everything we buy. The apathy of C'ville residents the last 7 years since I moved back is mind blowing. Way to go Dave and your band of merry idiots

If you will notice Dave Norris and Holly Edwards did want to fix the sidewalk and keep it open. It was the other 3 ( Huja, Szakos and Brown ) who didn't. Same deal on the dam project. Norris and Edwards voted for the common sense solution and the others ignored the facts. I agree we do need new councilors, but Norris and Edwards aren't the problem.

As someone who drives across that bridge daily, I am shocked to learn that it has not been painted for half of its life. Who would neglect such an important piece of infrastructure? If road salt is causing a problem, then use something else. If the few feet of the bridge is unsafe for pedestrians, then should I be worried about the section my car is traveling on?

build the sun dial on the sidewalk, that will block it

City resident,

Frankly, I think Dave Norris has only seen the light recently. Outside of the water project, he pretty much was all on board for spending money on silly things, or giving away public assets like McIntyre to private interests like the YMCA.

Huja was very hesitant to go forward with the dam, and I am not sure what had him finally tip.

"Who would neglect such an important piece of infrastructure? "

Only the same people who neglected the Downtown Mall until it cost a fortune to replace. They've also neglected basic maintenance of the Rivanna Reservoir and instead have pushed for a staggeringly expensive perpetual energy hog of a boondoggle to replace it.

Those are the same people who have also neglected the local sewer system so that sewage overflows into local creeks as well as the Rivanna River every time we have heavy rain.

That would be your local city officials who make salaries of $100,000+ supposedly to take care of those things. Any surprise that they're in favor of the most expensive least effective option here?

What baffles me, and many of my friends who search for a reasonable justification for city expenditures is why- given that we are advertised as a progressive, green, sustainable city, are we still pursuing 20th century solutions to so many of our infrastructure needs.

Why aren't we looking into innovative ways to repair, and maintain what we have, and not tear down and replace everytime some part of our infrastructure; whether it be water, sewer, bridges, or more roads is deemed ( by experts) to be inadequate.

Why not elect people who have a vision of a new way of tackling these problems and do not just accept what old school staff tell them is the way to go ?

Right now Mayor Norris and Ms Edwards have shown themselves to be the only ones willing to do this, and unless we elect others with the courage to do so we will continue down this wasteful, expensive path.

@Old Timer - good points but I'd add that even new residents of Belmont get screwed on this stuff, too. Not as long a list since they've (we've) been there a shorter time, but screwed nonetheless.


I have walked across that bridge on both sides for many years. I had many reasons for not crossing over Avon. I equate this with the typical snub to Belmont that took our walking path and park away when they decided to give it to Coran Capshaw. I used to patronize the mall a lot, but once they shut that path off, and then partially reopened it, I decided to make other paths to other places.

I live in Belmont to be as pedestrian oriented as possible, but year after year, that has been made less possible through a variety of City decisions, as they try and push through unfriendly development in both Belmont and the downtown area that is commuter oriented, instead of self sustaining. I know so many retirees who came to the area and moved downtown, some who don't own cars, and get frustrated because its hard for them to get basic staples in the area.

@City Resident

No, Edwards and Norris don't get it. If they did, they would have never shoved a 7th restaurant strongly on Belmont core residents, when there is no parking, and the roads to get there are so small. Instead of a nice mix of businesses providing different services, and catering to the pedestrian oriented culture so clearly defined in the NCC District planning code, they felt that locals didn;t have enough choices for expensive nights on the town. I guess they figure those in subsidized housing across Avon can just eat there, or get their overprices groceries at a tiny convenience store or CVS.

Whats more, most of this type of business development does not lead to good paying jobs with benefits. Its ridiculous.

Maybe we could spend 3 or 4 K and patch the bad side and then when snow is on it don't salt that side. (Which may mean just one side would be open during snow periods). I'll put up a Fenwick sign in my yard this year. I think we need a variety of people on City C. and some engineers. If you didn't have Brown or Huja on it you would have gotten the revised William Taylor Plaza. On the national level we've had a string of lawyers from both parties, we need some engineers and accountants in office.

Dave Norris consistently proves that he's a person not of principle but of whim -- a wind sock in an ever breezier landscape.

Re a massive dam at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, he sided with those who want to save trees, then publicly chided Brown, Szakos, and Huja for voting against saving trees. Re a massive development at Ridge-Cherry (an extension of the Ragged Mountains), he sided with his very, very, very good friend Charlie Armstrong of Southern Development -- and did so after hearing that a 21-foot circumference sycamore would be among the casualties and that tree canopy thereabout is already substandard -- then publicly chided those who want to save the trees there. And he cast those conflicting votes at the same meeting.

He advocates increasing tree canopy while pushing density -- density that wouldn't give a dwarf maple room to leaf out, much less an oak -- apparently oblivious to the fact that his buzz word-based policies are in direct conflict.

He ran twice on a platform that called for increased citizen participation but has consistently rejected the positions of participating citizens -- from Belmont, from Ridge Street, from Fifeville, et al. -- who oppose wherever his latest whim has taken him.

The sidewalk on Belmont Bridge should be repaired as a practical matter -- that is, so that walkers will not be forced to cross and recross a busy street for years. It should also be repaired as a matter of principle -- that is, that public safety and public resource stewardship are the prime responsibilities of municipal government. As for how to pay for the repair, I suggest digging into City-Council's "special projects" fund -- i.e. Councilors' pet project slush fund. And to get the most out of any amount spent, I suggest that the repair contract be let to Bob Fenwick -- someone who actually knows how to fix things.

at least the new clock will make a nice place for the news crews to stand when they report the death of someone crossing the street...

Lets see ,they close half of the Belmont Bridge to pedestrians,give in to the railroad when it doesnt want people merely crossing the tracks(not walking along or loitering on them), allow hoodlums and lowlifes to roam around freely so that people don't feel safe or comfortable walking even where they can. What a "world class city" with a world class joke for a city government!

The city had the option to use state money to repair the Bridge or to replace it when Maurice Cox was on Council. He wanted to design a brand new bridge. Huja looking forward to any design project supported him as well as the rest of the city staff. The JPA bridge has undergone redesign time after time under the eye of Meredith Richards and Maurice Cox. The lie being told here is that the railroad was holding up the final plans. Remember Meredith Richards and Maurice Cox is the reason why the Junvenile and Domestic Relations Court underwent multiple design changes over a period of years after the county had already signed off on it. The Belmont Bridge sidewalk needs to be repaired as the crumbling Ridge Street bridge was, twice. It is a shame the number of liars that are in City Hall. I guarantee that that bridge will not be replaced by 2018.

If these idiots hadn't blown $250,000+ on the ridiculous new downtown sinage and scap the moronic idea of a $25,000 clock (for the homeless I'm assuming since everyone has a watch or cell phone) we would have the $300,000 to fix the bridge which is a main thoroughfair at that end of town.

Face it, Council does not understand priority spending, they just spend until they run out of money. Then they look forward to the next year.
@meanwhile, you don't know what most people do. You are not standing on the bridge all day and all night. Many people walk on the east to get to Martha Jefferson Hospital.

CvilleEye, you are so correct about. When I lived on Monticello Road I always walked on the east side when headed toward the High Street/MJH area, the west if headed toward the Mall.Its a ridiculous argument that no one walks on the east side. But even more ridiculous is what the city has chosen to do.

A fair market rent charged to the YMCA for a spot in McIntire Park would go a long way towards paying for maintaining that bridge. Same with the money given to private developers for the Jefferson School rip off.

A fair market price from several of the City projects would go to pay for infrastructure. But of course, capitalism is only for the middle class. Everyone else gets a handout.

Good Morning Charlottesville Residents,

James Halfaday here and I wanted to chime in on this sidewalk project that is being done on the Belmont Bridge. I would like to go on the record and state that I would have NOT supported the funding for this fence. This is unacceptable that we have allowed our city infrastructure to dwindle down to this Deterioration status. I am deeply saddened to see that we as residents have funded over $14,000 for a project like this. I am against this project and this has to stop here in our City. I have to wonder is this $14,000 if it could have been able to fund another project in our city or to create a job.

Thank you for your time,

James Halfaday
Official City Council Candidate for Charlottesville