September 28, 2008

Too Much Haste on Jordan Bridge


By Gary Szymanski

A RECENT INSPECTION of the Jordan Bridge confirms the deteriorating condition of this 80-year-old link between Chesapeake and Portsmouth. The bridge carries about 7,000 vehicles per day, and in 2007 generated $1.6 million in toll revenue with a $350,000 operating surplus, yet the bridge has been allowed to decay. The cost for structural and other repairs just to keep the span operational for another 5 to 10 years is estimated at almost $18 million, so the numbers don't look good.

Sometimes the real value of something can be highly situational, though. Consider the after-effects of Hurricane Isabel and the flooded Midtown Tunnel. Suddenly 80,000 vehicles had to find alternate routes; traffic over the Jordan Bridge tripled and toll collection was suspended by Chesapeake to speed traffic flow as a regional gesture.

Repairs to the Jordan Bridge were justified by the potential closure of another critical, but aging structure, the Gilmerton Bridge. If the Gilmerton Bridge and the Jordan Bridge were simultaneously closed, traffic on I-64 would come to a standstill, with substantial regional economic impacts. This concern is more relevant now than in the past. As I write this column, the Gilmerton Bridge is closed for repairs.

What then is the true value of having the Jordan Bridge operational? With rapidly rising fuel prices, some traffic routes have reflected slight declines in traffic volumes, but these declines have not occurred at the region's major choke points, the Midtown and Downtown tunnels. Closing the Jordan Bridge will exacerbate the daily backups at these points, with resulting loss of regional productivity, air quality and overall loss of commuting alternatives. Daily backups at these locations and on I-64 tell us we need more alternatives, not less.

The bridge also has value as a link between neighborhoods struggling to revitalize in South Norfolk (Portlock, Berkley and Indian River) and the Navy shipyard.

The same is true for communities like Brentwood and Cradock with employment areas in Greenbrier and elsewhere. Revitalization efforts by planners and politicians should consider the potential of a central corridor an improved Jordan Bridge would provide. The Jordan Bridge has demonstrated local, regional and even national security benefits that must be counted. This cannot be just a Chesapeake issue, because of the entire regional implications to traffic and business.

Any analysis of the closure done by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission should include the value of benefits derived from an operating Jordan Bridge in the event that one of the tunnel routes is taken out of service by a major risk event. Concurrently, a more detailed analysis of the bridge structure should be performed to ensure that necessary repairs provide an acceptable factor of safety.

Maritime interests as well as politicians who commute to Richmond instead of Norfolk can easily dismiss the importance of the Jordan Bridge; however, it is like a rickety fire escape on an overcrowded building. When you do need it, it is worth a lot.

Regional leaders should be looking for solutions instead of just accepting loss. The new I-35 Replacement Bridge in Minnesota is a 10- lane, high-performance concrete monstrosity, and it was done in about a year at a cost of $234 million. Yet officials are telling the public that a new two- to four-lane Jordan Bridge will cost $300 million? A fresh and thorough look at the cost and consequences of losing this bridge is more than justified.

Gary Szymanski, president of the Sunray Civic League in Chesapeake, has been commuting across the Elizabeth River since 1977. He is a professional engineer.

Originally published by BY GARY SZYMANSKI.

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