The sad ending of an old bridge

Burnt Mill 2

Considering how vocal I was in wanting this old bridge saved just 13 years ago, it’s perhaps ironic that I now find myself advocating for its removal.

That is, unfortunately, where we’re at with the old Burnt Mill Bridge. It is an historic (dating back to the Great Depression era) and once stately bridge, but it has fallen into such a state of disrepair that it has become an eyesore and a safety hazard, a detriment to one of the more alluring places within the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

Working behind the scenes in the arena of tourism promotion, I’ve seen this issue brewing for a while. The subject of the old bridge has been broached in more than one meeting. Earlier this month, though, it reached a simmering point when Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area Superintendent Niki Nicholas penned a letter to Scott County Mayor Dale Perdue, expressing her concerns over the safety hazards posed by the bridge and urging corrective action.

After requesting a copy of the letter under the Freedom Of Information Act, I visited the bridge to see for myself just how far gone it is, and I was shocked at its deteriorated condition.

To say that the bridge is a safety hazard would be to put it mildly. To say it’s a liability to Scott County and the community’s taxpayers would be an understatement.

I have a video of one of the planks on the bridge’s floor crumbling beneath my weight, pieces of rotten lumber tumbling onto the rocks in the stream bed far below. Large sections of boards are already missing, creating holes plenty large enough for a pedestrian to fall through. This bridge, spanning the Clear Fork River, may not be especially high, but it’s plenty high enough to cause serious injury and even death to someone who falls through. It isn’t hard to imagine a child wandering out onto the bridge and falling to his death, or even an intoxicated adult. Walking across the bridge made me slightly nervous in my own right.

It should have never come to this point. It is only neglect that has allowed the Burnt Mill Bridge to reach such a state of disrepair, with regards to its flooring. In 2005, then-Scott County Mayor Dwight Murphy penned a pair of letters to Paul Stoehr, who was at the time the assistant superintendent at the Big South Fork NRRA, in which Murphy pledged that the county would be responsible for the bridge’s upkeep if it was left standing for pedestrian use (by that time, the bridge had been closed to vehicular traffic and a modern, concrete bridge was being constructed just downstream).

Since that time, Scott County has allocated no funds to provide for the bridge’s upkeep, allowing it to slowly deteriorate. If we’re being frankly honest, the fact that the bridge is still open, with no barricades on either end, is a matter of neglect, and an invitation for a lawsuit.

At this point, simply repairing the bridge may be more trouble than it’s worth. For starters, where do the funds come from? Technically, the Scott County Road Department — which does not receive local funding and operates almost exclusively from its share of the state’s gasoline tax — is responsible for the bridge’s upkeep. With an annual budget of $2 million, which doesn’t even provide for adequate upkeep of the county’s roads and bridges that actually are used for transportation purposes, the Road Department can hardly afford to put tens of thousands of dollars into reflooring the bridge, and that’s exactly what it would cost.

In 2014, when our tourism body launched discussions about the unsafe conditions at the O&W Bridge in another section of the Big South Fork, we learned that it would cost nearly $50,000 in materials to replace every bit of timber on the bridge. Throw in labor, and the price tag swelled to nearly $100,000. That bridge was different; it utilized railroad ties, was longer, and the price tag included safety fencing. But repairing the decking of the Burnt Mill Bridge would probably cost half that.

Do the citizens of Scott County who pay taxes want that price tag added to their tax bills? If recent opposition to proposed tax increases is any indication, the answer is “no.”

And, unfortunately, the issue is more complicated than just replacing the wood on the bridge. An engineer visited the bridge last year, at the request of the Industrial Development Board of Scott County, and determined that its structural integrity was compromised due to the deteriorating condition of the concrete support columns, which are crumbling at their base. Those can be repaired, but the price tag would be significantly higher than reflooring the bridge.

So at what point does the price tag exceed efforts to save the old bridge? It’s very likely that we’re already past that point. It would be unconscionable for Scott County to divert funds away from road maintenance to repair a bridge that serves no purpose other than to fuel nostalgia. And Scott Countians will not support a tax increase to cover the cost. Grants, like the one used to restore the O&W Bridge, aren’t available to cover that cost.

Which means the only option is to remove it. That will also carry a hefty price tag — remember that the bridge sits in a federal waterway, with myriad regulations attached — but the cost of doing nothing could be even higher if someone falls to their death, or if the bridge collapses in a flood and is washed into the new bridge downstream and causes damage to it. And Scott County will have at least one potential buyer come to the table if it decides to remove the bridge. That party has expressed an interest to me, in a private conversation, of purchasing the steel, which could help defray some of the cost of removing the bridge.

Thirteen years ago, I wanted the old Burnt Mill Bridge saved. I spent a lot of my youth in that area, and was sad to see vehicular traffic stopped on the old bridge. How it reached this condition can be debated until we’re all blue in the face. But, the bottom line remains: it is in this condition, and it’s probably time to act on it. Removing the safety hazard is one thing. Removing the eyesore is another.

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