Open Letter About the Swinging Bridge: Context, History, and Options
Last modified on March 4th, 2020 at 10:16 am
Friday afternoon, Mayor Broughton delivered the following letter to residents of Chestnut and Dowell streets who requested information about the city’s plans for the swinging bridge. It is published here to provide more information about the history and realistic options for replacing the bridge.
Thank you for your letters of 31 December and 27 January raising questions about the swinging bridge that formerly spanned the Tygart Valley River between the Elkins Railyard and your neighborhood.
Your questions relate to the bridge’s history; responsibility for maintenance of the bridge; reasons for its closure; the current status of grant awards for bridge repair or replacement; and reasons why other expenditures have been prioritized over a project to replace this bridge.
Below, we have provided the best answers we have to your questions, along with some additional context and history that we hope will be helpful to the ongoing public conversation about the bridge.
As you know, the swinging bridge has been in place for about a century. Although no records of its construction can be located, it seems to have been the work of one or more private companies that built it to enable employees to commute to and from work on foot across the river. Because ownership of this bridge was never transferred to the city from the original owners, the city cannot take responsibility for maintaining it, as explained in more detail below.
The 2014 Grant
In the early 2010s, as the existing bridge seemed to be nearing its end of life, the city applied for and was awarded a WV Division of Highways Transportation Alternatives/Recreational Trail Program grant.
This grant would have reimbursed 80 percent of what in 2014 was estimated to be the $550,075 cost of replacing the bridge, or $440,060. (Repairing the existing bridge was not possible under this grant, which, like all public funding for projects like this one, would have required that the project result in a fully accessible, ADA-compliant bridge.)
Under the 2014 grant award, the city would still have been responsible for the remaining 20 percent of the estimated project costs, or $110,015. In addition, the city would also have been responsible for the cost of demolishing the old bridge and any project cost overruns. Money for a project like this one must come from the city’s General Fund budget (as opposed to the budgets of the Sewer or Water Funds). The General Fund is the city’s basic operating fund and covers activities and services such as street repairs, snow plowing, the police department, planning and zoning, building inspections, code enforcement, financial administration, customer service, legislative processes, downtown improvements, and the functioning and upkeep of city hall.
For comparison, the $110,015 that would have been the city’s minimum outlay under the 2014 grant was approximately the size of the city’s 2014 budget for road resurfacing, road patching after underground infrastructure repairs, and other road paving activities. It is also about the same as the first-year cost for a new police officer (including salary, training, equipment, and vehicle). Given that this was before the implementation of the city’s sales tax and in keeping with the city’s responsibility to make decisions for the greatest public good, council concluded that there wasn’t room in the city budget for this outlay and reluctantly rejected the 2014 grant. In answer to one of your questions, there is currently no grant award in place for this or any related project.
In 2016, as concerns about the condition of the bridge mounted, the city requested an inspection by a civil engineer from Michael Baker International, a prominent engineering and consulting firm with extensive infrastructure experience.
This engineer reported that the swinging bridge was unsafe, not only because of its dilapidated condition but because of its original design. In other words, even if the bridge had been in perfect condition, it would not have met current standards for weight load, stability, fall protection, or width of walkway. Of course, the bridge was also in far from perfect condition. The engineer found rotted floorboards and rust-weakened support cables.
For the city to have responsibly accepted ownership of the bridge at that time, the city and its insurer would have needed to be certain that it was as safe as possible, which—based on the engineer’s findings—would have required a major reconstruction project. Unable to carve out the funds for such a project from the many other competing demands on the city budget, the city exercised its authority to act against public hazards and closed the bridge.
The updated cost for replacing this bridge is not known. Given price trends for construction materials, it seems likely to have risen considerably since the 2014 estimate of about $500,000. The city could not bear a cost of this magnitude outright without significant reductions in services and activities that many residents and business owners depend on. Therefore, the only possible solution—if there is one—would be to fund this project through another grant.
Again, there is currently no active grant award for this project. As you know, earlier this month, city council’s Municipal Properties Committee took up discussion of possible options for providing a safe pedestrian bridge in this location. You and some of your neighbors shared your thoughts about what you see as the importance of a bridge in this location during that meeting’s public comment forum. The committee indicated at that time that it would begin researching what options, if any, exist for the construction of a replacement bridge. I also plan to reach out to state and other officials to see what might be possible.
In other words, the city is now at the beginning of a process of learning if the same or similar grants might be available for this project, what the project costs would be, what the costs to the city would be, and how those costs might be covered. If a viable path to securing grant funding for this project is identified, please be advised that the application process for such grants can last a year or more from initial application to announcement of award. Even then, because of competing demands and finite project management resources, any funded construction project might not be completed for several years after that.
Other Questions and Concerns
Mr. Warner’s letter suggests that the city consider collaborating with the county commission on a project to replace the bridge. The city is always interested in opportunities to collaborate with our county commissioners, so this is a conversation we would love to have.
Mr. Warner also raises the question of why a replacement to the swinging bridge can’t be funded in light of the approximately $2.3 million spent to build the Elkins Rail Trail Connector bridge and trail extension along U.S. Rt. 219. This project was executed by the Randolph County Development Authority with grant and other funding from the West Virginia Division of Highways. This was not a city project and did not involve city funds.
You and Mr. Warner express understandable concern about the decision by some people to use the railroad bridge to cross the river. You are correct that this is dangerous. It is also illegal. In addition to risking serious injury or death, anyone caught doing this could be charged and fined by Elkins or West Virginia State Rail Authority police.
In answer to your questions about sidewalk conditions, under Elkins city code responsibility for sidewalks has always fallen to each property owner. One recent exception was the project to install curb cuts and tactile paving for ADA compliance downtown. This was another DOH-funded project. The city neither directed nor contributed funding for this project.
Finally, in response to your request for personal notification of upcoming committee and council discussions of the swinging bridge: Because we would not be able to provide subject-matter-specific notifications to everyone who might want this citywide, we cannot provide it in this case. However, if you will provide me with an email address for a contact person representing your group, we will add him or her to the distribution list for council and Municipal Properties Committee agendas.
Discussions of this matter will, for the time being, likely be restricted to the Municipal Properties Committee, which meets regularly on third Wednesdays at 9 a.m. in city hall room 212. You may view the city’s online meeting calendar here: https://cityofelkinswv.com/calendar/. It is a good idea to call before attending a meeting to verify that it has not been cancelled or postponed. The best number to call is: (304) 636-1414, ext. 1110.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions or concerns.