Latest Watmaugh Bridge plan under fire
THE PROPOSED BRIDGE, in yellow, would be just to the south of the current bridge, in purple.
The county's latest plan for the Watmaugh Bridge hasn't even been presented publicly and it's already drawing flak from the Valley representative on the county's Landmarks Commission.
The newest plan, which will be presented at the June 7 Landmarks Commission meeting, would leave the existing bridge where it stands, but calls for construction of a new bridge to the south of the current one.
Tom O'Kane, deputy director of the county's Transportation and Public Works Department, said that while a new vehicular bridge would be built to the south of the current site, a bicycle crossing and vehicle parking would occupy the current bridge and its approaches.
But Nancy Simpson, the Valley representative on the Landmarks Commission, isn't happy with the new proposal.
"As a Landmarks Commissioner, the bridge has to be safe," Simpson said. "Safety is the most important premise."
But she's still questioning why the county is going to build a new bridge instead of retrofitting the current one. And she points to a letter from Bishwendu K. Paul, an engineer with Earthquake and Structures, Inc., from Oakland, who visited the bridge site and sent a letter in September saying, "To the best of our knowledge, there is definitely a possibility for a retrofit as opposed to replacement with far less money compared to build a new bridge."
Simpson is also dismayed that eminent domain may be used to secure the right-of-way for the proposed bridge.
But O'Kane said the county isn't even close to looking at the right-of-way yet.
"We're not even close to getting right-of-way," he said. "That would be sometime after the design is done and putting together the plat maps for what was needed for a right-of-way. Unfortunately, sometimes we don't get agreement with the property owners so we go to condemnation, but that's a long way off."
"We have to decide on this bridge or a replacement," he added, "so that's a long way off."
Simpson wants to know why the county and the community aren't apparently on the same page.
"If it comes down to eminent domain, it's wrong," she said.
She said the county isn't hearing what the community is saying.
"The community is telling me, 'we want you to protect the bridge. We want to use our historic bridge. Retrofit it, even if there's a weight limit and no bike traffic,'" she said.
"The community is saying, we want to use our historic structures - we don't want them to be museums," she added.
The dispute over the bridge has been going on for more than a year since the county called a meeting to present the project to the community.
The Landmarks Commission has discussed the bridge at a couple of meetings, but since there was no project on the table, it was mostly question-and-answer.
Transportation and Public Works now has a plan and will be going to the commission at its June meeting. O'Kane pointed out that the supervisors have the last word, and that the Landmarks Commission has no authority over the proposed bridge.
O'Kane said not demolishing the old bridge could save the county $2 million to $3 million, but admitted some of those savings would be offset by paying for a new right-of-way.
But Simpson still has questions she wants answered.
"This is a historic corridor," she said. "The bridge has twice been recognized. But the county has done little to maintain it."
She doesn't understand why the county passed a resolution in 1998 that both the Supervisors and the Landmarks Commission signed off, on creating the Historical Bridge District, if it's going to ignore it.
"If you build a new bridge next to it, it isn't historical preservation," she said. "I want them to honor the 1998 Historical Bridge resolution."