No Other Way Out

No Other Way Out

Fairfax County, VDOT, CSX Railroad at impasse over repair of Gunston Cove Road Bridge.

Tucked away on Gunston Cove Road, around a curve from a Shell gas station, is a wooden, one-lane bridge, blocked by concrete barricades on one side and a metal sign on the other.

For years, Lorton residents used the bridge to access Interstate 95 from Route 1, instead of traveling across Lorton Road. But for the past few years, the bridge has been closed for fear that it's not safe for cars to use.

It would seem the easy option would be to repair the bridge, or replace it with something deemed sturdier and safer. That would be the answer, if Fairfax County, the Virginia Department of Transportation and CSX, the company that owns the railroad tracks under the bridge, could agree on who has responsibility for the bridge.

"The bottom line is that the bridge should be replaced," said Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). "We have county money and state money, the bridge should be replaced."

In December 2004, VDOT closed the bridge for the third time in 10 years over concerns that the wooden bridge was no longer safe, said Ryan Hall, a VDOT spokesman.

"The bridge has many problems," he said. "It's a single lane bridge. There's no shoulder. It has blind approaches on both sides. The railings are inadequate. It's a timber bridge right now, which is not suitable for heavy traffic."

According to Virginia code, when CSX purchased the Richmond Fredricksburg and Potmac Railroad system, along with the tracks it used, it took responsibility for the bridge, Hall said. "CSX disputes that fact and said that it doesn't use or need the bridge. Historical records show that the bridge was built to be a railroad bridge and should be maintained by the owner of the tracks, currently CSX, he said.

IN 2001, the bridge was included in Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan to be repaired. The Comprehensive Plan is altered during a four-year cycle, Hall said, while VDOT makes changes to its master plan every six years.

"According to VDOT's plan, there was a schedule to start looking at the design of the bridge for repair in 2004 and construction was supposed to start in July 2006," Hall said. "However, Fairfax County removed the bridge from the Comprehensive Plan in 2002 and it was never put back."

With the bridge off the county's radar as an important project, VDOT removed the Gunston Cove Road bridge from its own agenda.

Residents in the Lorton area, who had used the bridge as another access route to Interstate 95, remember hearing that the bridge was going to be taken out of the plan.

During a South County Federation meeting around that time, a VDOT representative told residents that the bridge was taken out of the plan and that an alternate route would come in the form of Market Street, said resident Lowell Curtis.

"The state had taken the bridge out of their plan," Curtis said. "We put in our own nomination to make sure the bridge stayed in the plan, but VDOT has been trying to get it taken out again."

On page 83 of the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, in the Lower Potomac II-Lorton South/ Route 1 Community Planning Sector, the third bullet in the page calls for "Improvements for north-south vehicular flow, including the Armistead Road extension to Pohick Road and New Gunston Cove Road between Gunston Road and Lorton Road."

A map on the page also has the instructions: "Build new bridge to replace the current wooden bridge. Until such time as the existing bridge is replaced, restrict the bridge weight carrying capacity to less than 5 tons."

In other words, the Gunston Cove Road bridge should be improved.

HALL SAID that since the bridge is still standing and included in the Comprehensive Plan, all requirements are being met. The plan doesn't say anything about opening the bridge, he said, just that it has to be there.

"We're not going to fix the bridge the way it currently is," Hall said. "It has to be replaced. It is up to Fairfax County to decide to replace it. Once a bridge is built, VDOT will maintain it."

But isn't CSX responsible for the bridge that it owns and has maintained?

"VDOT and CSX are at an impasse about the bridge. We feel they own the bridge and are responsible for maintenance," Hall said. "Our engineers have taken a look at it and said that even if we replace the bridge, the maintenance costs would be too high, so it's not in our best interest to pay for taking care of it."

Neither CSX nor VDOT have shown any willingness to budge on the issue, he said.

"Once Fairfax County has decided to build the bridge, we would assume responsibility," Hall said. "We don't believe it's our responsibility. CSX says it's not theirs either. The bridge won't be fixed in the foreseeable future."

Without the bridge, Lorton residents only have one way to get from one side of Lorton to the other.

"The only way to get around, either to I-95 or up to Fairfax, is to go five or six miles out of your way," said Tim Rizer, a Lorton resident and vice president of the South County Federation.

Even when Market Street is opened, that will only do so much to help ease traffic congestion getting onto I-95, he said.

"But they're putting in a shopping center, so that's going to be a very busy spot," Rizer said. "It's going to create a lot of problems without having another option."

None of this traffic in Lorton, which has had its own population boom in recent years, takes into consideration the influx of tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel that will be moving into Fort Belvoir, courtesy of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decisions of 2005, he said.

To Rizer and Curtis, the need for the Gunston Cove Road bridge to be re-opened is obvious.

"We made sure that bridge was in the Comprehensive Plan good and solid," Rizer said. "I'm very suspicious. This just seems to fit someone's sense of getting rid of the bridge once and for all."

Rizer said that if Hyland really wanted the bridge opened, it would've been fixed years ago.

"The county's position six years ago was that they didn't want the bridge. Apparently, little has changed," he said. "If there's any perception by VDOT that the county doesn't want the bridge, it's a failure on the part of our elected officials to make the case for this bridge."

The community is in favor of having the bridge re-opened, Curtis said, if only for safety reasons.

"There was a staggeringly high traffic report for that road when it was open," he said. "If the numbers are correct, it should be obvious that we need it. Our issue is that going through Market Street will still only give us one access point, which will be overly congested."

When the Lorton Station neighborhood was being built, KSI Developers proffered $750,000 toward the repair of Lorton Road. The money had already been set aside by VDOT for that work, Curtis said, so it was earmarked to be used toward Gunston Cove Road, more specifically the bridge.

"My understanding is that the money is still there," he said. "The problem is, we've heard estimates that it would cost between $1.5 and $2.5 million to replace the bridge. When VDOT goes to build a bridge, they want it all fancy. We just want a bridge."