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Article 39

August 03. 2007 1:00PM

Bridge collapse heightens concerns

By SETH STRATTON
The Dispatch

The collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., made Davidson County Commissioner Sam Watford think about another interstate bridge closer to home that has been structurally criticized.

The safety and replacement of the Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River connecting Davidson and Rowan counties have been discussed by local, state and federal officials for years. Now the county is trying to get more local governments and legislators on board with the building of a new bridge by asking towns and cities from Atlanta to Petersburg, Va., to pass a resolution in support of the bridge's replacement.

Commissioner Dr. Max Walser took a resolution asking for federal funding to Washington, D.C., in May when he met with legislators and top aides of U.S. representatives and senators from the area. The bridge was on the N.C. Department of Transportation's Transportation Improvement Plan but was shelved in 2005 because of funding shortfalls.

Pat Ivey, a division engineer for the DOT, said the bridge could be built for about $210 million to $220 million today.

"This is not a Davidson County problem," Commissioners Chairman Fred McClure said. "This is an inter-state problem."

Watford believes if others are actively engaged in supporting the replacement, the funding will come.

"We have to get somebody else involved in it, be it the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County or the City of Greensboro. That would do it," Watford said.

Walser said he received a positive response from the resolution he brought to Washington. He met with Reps. Mel Watt, D-12th, and Howard Coble, R-6th, and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. The legislators seemed genuinely interested in the project and told Walser they would review it with the appropriate officials.

The county decided to send a delegate to Washington when they found out the bridge's low rating qualified it for federal funding. Walser said he has heard some DOT officials say this project could not be funded by the state because of its high cost.

One way to bring down that cost would be to make the bridge a toll bridge, but that idea is not supported by the commissioners. Ivey said the DOT and the N.C. Turnpike Authority are studying the effect of instituting a toll on the bridge. A toll bridge would bring the replacement cost up to about $300 million, Ivey said.

A new design for the bridge is already in place. As one of the top priorities for the division, Ivey said, the biggest challenge is finding funds. The design of the new bridge would be about 500 feet to the east and span about 1 1/2 miles across the river.

The four-lane bridge with a concrete divider was rated as the seventh-worst bridge in the state, according to a AAA Carolinas study of the top 20 substandard bridges in North Carolina.

The next step would be to get a group of local officials and politicians together to talk about what action should be taken next, Walser said.

"The bridge needs to be replaced. It's old, worn and carries 60,000-plus cars a day," Walser said.

"We need to tell (other governments) how this affects the economy of the whole state," Watford said.

County Manager Robert Hyatt said a resolution would be drafted by the commissioners' next meeting Aug. 14.

Seth Stratton can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 226, or seth.stratton@the-dispatch.com.



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