No quick fix: Locust bridge down for the count

If traffic on Route 250 in recent days is any example, Locust Avenue now boasts a bridge over troubled drivers– drivers stuck in traffic generated by the bridge's March 10 shut-down for repairs.

The bridge will be closed for four to five months, says city spokesperson Maurice Jones, while Lynchburg-based London Construction repairs the damage done in 1999 when excavation equipment in the back of a dump truck bashed a beam below the bridge.

At times during the course of repairs, Jones says, workers will have to narrow the Route 250 Bypass under the bridge to one lane, though in only one direction at a time. And both lanes will need to be shut down on at least one occasion (again, in only one direction). Fortunately, Jones says, that closure will occur in the "wee hours" when traffic is lightest.

City engineer Tony Edwards says drivers may want to give themselves some extra time to get to their destinations, and he encourages drivers to take larger roads such as routes 29 and 250. "We want to discourage people from making the cut through in neighborhoods," he says.

Though traffic in and around Downtown may be slightly heavier now– especially at rush hours– it might pale beside the traffic snarls that will undoubtedly ensue when the Park Street bridge closes for its own repairs as soon as Locust reopens this summer.

Since Park Street is a major artery for commuters coming in from north of town– with as many as 20,000 cars each day– the volume of traffic on alternate routes (especially Route 29) may make Charlottesville a little more like our NOVA neighbors– at least temporarily.

That the Locust Avenue and Park Street bridges bear similar scars is no coincidence: Both were struck– on the same day– by a truck from Waynesboro-based L.W. Critzer company. A spokesperson from Critzer declined comment on the 1999 incidents.

Since that time, countless newcomers have moved to the area, and many of them have never seen the Park Street bridge unadorned by orange cones. So what's taken so long for the repairs on either bridge to begin? Simple caution, says Edwards.

This is the second time the Locust Avenue bridge has undergone repair– the first took place after the bridge was struck by a truck (though not Critzer's) in 1993. The City learned a tough lesson from that experience. The truck's insurance company refused to reimburse the city for the repair, claiming the work could have been done for less money.

This time around, the city has made sure the majority of the expense won't fall on its shoulders. Of the $854,095 price tag for repairs to both bridges, the City is responsible for only $7,991. Critzer's insurance will cover $454,573, and the state will pick up the remaining $391,531.

But that direct expense doesn't take into account the hidden cost to drivers who are now spending added time in their cars and using up more gas– which at some pricier stations is going for more than $1.50 for a gallon of regular.

Those hidden costs can be calculated by use of a "network model," a computer program that takes traffic volume in a given area and predicts what problems and expenses any given change to traffic patterns will incur. No such model was used for the current repairs, says Edwards, and he says hidden costs were not tallied.

Perhaps that's best. Drivers now report the wait on High Street heading toward Downtown has jumped from one minute to as much as 10 minutes at peak times. And with those estimated 20,000 cars a day traveling on Park Street, allotting just $1 per driver for additional time and gas each day would put the figure after the estimated five month repairs at a budget-busting $3 million– not including the cost for the somewhat less-disruptive Locust Avenue repairs.

Though both repairs should be complete by November, that doesn't mean smooth sail... er, driving.

What's to keep these bridges from being damaged again as soon as they're fixed? Some localities put up "limbo" bars immediately preceding bridges that are likely to be struck. If a truck fails to clear the metal bar hanging over the road, the driver knows immediately how low he can go; no costly damage is done, and the driver has time to stop and plan an alternate route. Jones says the city won't put up those bars, and, in fact, there won't even be signs announcing the bridges' clearance, since both have heights that exceed the state's minimum requirement for a sign.

While most drivers never think about clearing a bridge, truck drivers, says Jones, are aware of their own vehicle's height– at least most of them are.

So have Critzer's trucks been banned from traveling Route 250? "No, I don't believe they have," chuckles Jones.


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