KANAWHA FALLS — Water plunges 20 feet off a river-wide ledge of sandstone that zigzags across the Kanawha River a few hundred yards downstream from its source — the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers at Gauley Bridge.
While a little less than 1,000 feet separate the town of Glen Ferris on the north side of the river from Kanawha Falls, on the south, the distance is felt more sharply now than it has been in nearly a century, with the closure of the Kanawha Falls Bridge.
From the road fronting Ann Clark’s Kanawha Falls home, traffic can be seen moving along U.S. 60 across the Kanawha River in Glen Ferris. From there, a four-lane section of the highway connects eastbound drivers with Gauley Bridge, a little more than one mile to the east.
Slightly more than six months ago, it took about five minutes for Clark and other Kanawha Falls residents to drive to Gauley Bridge for grocery shopping, vehicle fueling, filling prescriptions or stocking up on household needs. Ambulances and fire trucks based in Gauley Bridge could be expected to arrive in Kanawha Falls within a matter of minutes. Fayette County school buses picked up students on the Kanawha Falls side of the river, where U.S. Postal Service mail carriers made deliveries to all homes.
“Now, it’s an hour trip to get to Gauley Bridge,” said Clark, who has lived in Kanawha Falls for 65 years.
Parents must drive their children to school in Smithers or Gauley Bridge, Clark said, and residents of Kanawha Falls and the nearby Boonesborough community have to drive to Mount Carbon to pick up their mail.
On Nov. 1 of last year, state Division of Highways officials closed the 91-year-old Kanawha Falls Bridge after learning that a corroded beam had broken, separated and dropped nearly 5 inches from a support truss and created a dangerous gap on the bridge deck. It has remained closed since then.
Within two weeks of the closure, DOH officials said an emergency contract had been put out to bid for repairs known to be needed to begin a more thorough rehab of the bridge. The stated goal at the time was to reopen the span until a new bridge could be designed, funded and built.
But new structural problems became apparent as repair needs were assessed.
At some point, DOH officials began considering a plan to improve two secondary routes on the Falls View side of the Kanawha as an option to repairing or replacing the damaged bridge, the condition of which has been rated “poor” since 1991, according to National Bridge Inventory data.
One of the roads is 3.3-mile State Secondary Route 61/ 29, now used as part of the detour route from Falls View and the nearby community of Boonesborough to Deepwater, where it connects to W.Va. 61. By following W.Va. 61 through Mount Carbon to Montgomery, residents can connect with U.S. 60 and follow it eastward to Glen Ferris and on to Gauley Bridge. The total detour route to the other side of the Kanawha Falls Bridge is 18 miles.
The other secondary road being eyed for improvement is Deepwater-Cotton Hill Road, or State Secondary Route 13, a 6.7-mile dirt road now used primarily by ATVs due to washouts, slides, potholes and ruts, that connects with Jenkins Branch Road about a half-mile from its junction with W.Va. 16. From there, Falls View travelers can follow W.Va. 16 north to Fayetteville, or south to its intersection with U.S. 60 at Chimney Corner and then follow U.S. 60 west to Gauley Bridge and Glen Ferris. That detour route involves 18.3 miles and is expected to take about one hour to traverse, according to the DOH.
Those plans, expected to cost a total of $6.8 million to implement, were not known by residents of Falls View and Boonesborough until a meeting between DOH officials and the public, suggested by Sen. Stephen Baldwin Jr., D-Greenbrier, whose district includes Fayette County, was held on May 14 in Mount Carbon.
According to the handout given to those attending, the meeting was to be “an informational workshop” in which participants would be able to ask questions and state their views on the project, since public comments “are an important part of the planning process for this proposed improvement project.”
But the handout also included a timetable indicating that the public comment period would end on June 14, an environmental clearance date was expected on June 24, and construction on the road project was expected to begin on June 26.
Several of those attending asked why only one project was proposed and why area residents had not been involved in the planning.
“It’s supposed to be a proposal, but it sounds like a dictation,” said Kanawha Falls resident John Hovey, according to a Montgomery Herald account of the meeting.
“I think the folks attending the meeting were expecting an opportunity to hear what the options were for reopening the bridge — how much it would cost to rebuild or replace it,” and when it might happen, Baldwin said. Instead, acting DOH Commissioner Jimmy Wriston, appointed to his post on March 26 by Gov. Jim Justice, described the road improvement proposals, and then “basically just came out and said, ‘I know you want a bridge, but you’re not going to get one,’ ” Baldwin said.
Wriston, Baldwin said, “set a bad tone and was very combative, so the residents of the area, understandably upset, fired back.” That dialogue, he said, “wasn’t leading to anything productive.”
“It was billed as a meeting to get public input, but it was clear that the Division of Highways had given no consideration to anything but working on the roads, the option involving the smallest amount of money,” said Kanawha Falls resident Tim Jones, among those attending the meeting.
Wriston, Jones said, “told us this is what’s going to happen and you’d better like it. But taking the bridge away from this community will completely change its lifestyle. We rely on that bridge for access to all things necessary for day-to-day existence — groceries, health care, mail service, trash pick-up, FedEx and UPS deliveries, and reasonable response times for emergency medical and fire department services. You know, the things we’ve come to expect from living in the United States of America.”
The work planned for the roads involves adding asphalt only to a short section of State Secondary Route 61/ 29 near Deepwater that is already paved, and rocking, grading, stabilizing, draining and, in some locations, widening, the remainder of the road to Kanawha Falls. A huge section of a sandstone cliff hanging over the road along that route would be removed to allow larger trucks and buses to traverse it.
State Secondary Route 13, the old county road connecting Deepwater and Boonesborough to W.Va. 16 near Beckwith, would remain a narrow, winding dirt road, though graded, drained and stabilized.
“Even with the improvements it will take 30 to 45 minutes for a passenger vehicle to cross the mountain to Beckwith,” Jones said. “None of the improvements would make navigating the road any faster or easier. We would be happy to continue using the road to Deepwater as-is while repairs to the bridge are completed, saving the state $6.8 million. That would go a long way toward repairing the bridge.”
During a 2012 public meeting on the future of the bridge, a number of replacement options were under consideration, ranging in cost from $14.2 million to $32.2 million. However, the preferred alternative identified by DOH planners was a comprehensive rehabilitation project, estimated to cost $17.1 million.
A no-build option was also considered, but rejected since the bridge, rated “poor” in terms of its structural health by inspectors, would soon be forced to close without receiving overdue maintenance. Kanawha Falls residents would then face a permanent detour of 18 miles, forcing traffic, including emergency services vehicles, to rely on a long detour route with a low running speed, “making the no-build option not feasible,” according to DOH planners at that time.
On Friday, Wriston said the 2012 public meeting was part of a required National Environmental Policy Act process that remains incomplete, keeping the rebuilding option identified at the time in limbo. But rebuilding a 90-year-old structure with 90-year-old steel would be “perhaps irresponsible and unsafe,” he said.
Wriston said construction costs for new bridges have risen sharply since 2012. At the public meeting, he said it could cost up to $40 million to build a new Kanawha Falls Bridge, which would be “irresponsible” to the state’s taxpayers.
Wriston said he did not discuss repair or replacement options for the bridge at the meeting because, as the newly appointed highway commissioner, “I felt we needed to go into the community and have and open and honest discussion.
“We understand these projects are sensitive and sometimes the decisions made aren’t what those affected want to see,” Wriston said. “But the WVDOH has a responsibility to stretch its dollars over the entire system, all the while providing a safe system citizens deserve and can be proud of.”
“Without the bridge, I feel like I’m being kept in a pen,” said Phyllis Welch, 76, as the low roar of her community’s namesake rumbled behind her home. “I’ve had heart surgery, stents, and now I have kidney problems and may have to go on dialysis. I would feel so much better if we had our bridge. I’m scared to death of that road. If not for my nephew, I’d never be able to get out of here when I need to.”
If the bridge is not replaced or repaired, “property values will plunge, home insurance rates will probably go up, and the people who live here won’t be able to sell their homes or drive to work,” Jones said. “Folks will lose interest in improving their properties and the community will die.”
Jones said he wished DOH officials would take a look at a scaled-down bridge, perhaps one with only a single vehicle lane and a relatively low weight limit.
“The only suitable plan is to establish some method to allow residents on the south side of the river to access U.S. 60 on the north side,” he said. “Whether you choose to repair the bridge or erect a new structure, getting across the river is the only good answer.”
Otherwise, Jones said, “you have essentially told these residents of our wonderful state that you don’t really care about their communities or even their lives.”
According to a 2016 survey, an average of 492 daily crossings of the Kanawha Falls Bridge were recorded.
“While there aren’t huge numbers of people using the bridge, it is important to the larger community, including the businesses in Gauley Bridge,” to keep it open, Baldwin said. Any future economic or residential growth on the south side of the Kanawha from Glen Ferris would be unlikely without a bridge.
During the May public meeting, Baldwin suggested having several members of the bridge-using community meet with DOH officials to review the process used to arrive at the conclusion that the bridge is not worth repairing or replacing. Baldwin also hopes DOH officials will be open to hearing how bridge users’ lives would be affected without a span connecting Kanawha Falls to U.S 60 at Glen Ferris.
Baldwin, who indicated he favors maintaining a bridge at Kanawha Falls, said the DOH has agreed to host the first such meeting on Friday.