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Opinion Letters Change still needed in state level DOT policies

Dear Governor Perdue:

Before you simply pass this letter on to the NC Department of Transportation, please take a few moments to read it. To ask that agency to handle a change of this type and expect results would be like putting your two-year-old daughter into the alligator pen and asking the alligators to raise her to adulthood for you.

Last night a large contingent of DOT folks traveled from Raleigh to the mountains of Macon County to hold a “last hearing” on the fate of McCoy Bridge, one of the few remaining truss bridges still in service in the state. We appreciate the DOT’s effort to bring their expertise to our community, however it was evident from the start that a DOT-initiated alternative had already been chosen and once again community opinion had been ignored.

This didn’t stop residents of north Macon County - about 90 of whom turned out - from expressing their views, the importance of, local history, the quality of the environment in which they live, and indignation at not having a voice in their future. Once again - and they should have been well aware of this over the past nine years - NC-DOT found that they had stepped into a hornet’s nest. As Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale put it, when it was his turn to speak, “This community is different. They care, they are informed, and they will tell you what they want.”

Indeed. And I speak of the whole community. Those who have lived their entire lives close to the Little Tennessee River - which McCoy Bridge spans - were just as articulate and eloquent as those who have come to love this land in their later years. This community is filled with planners, engineers, historians and many more, all of whom share a common vision for their future. We have made well thought-out and researched proposals to NC-DOT which take into account safety, function and aesthetics. These have been largely ignored.

We have been in contact with a number of individuals and DOTs in other states over the past decade. North Carolina stands apart — and, not in a good way. They were conspicuously absent from the last NationaI Historic Bridge workshop in DC where most Eastern states were present. Pennsylvania has over 700 truss bridges in service and Iowa over 1200, while North Carolina has approximately 30. Indiana, Michigan and Vermont — states that are not unique, it just happens that they’re ones we’ve chosen to contact — all give historical significance top priority.

North Carolina does not.

Let’s look at Vermont. The Vermont State Historic Preservation Office, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (that’s their DOT), and the Federal Highway Administration, recognizing their heritage, all sat down together and worked out a long-term preservation and restoration plan for 64 truss bridges that will be kept in service on Vermont highways. What’s more, the VAOT estimates $22,852,000 for rehabilitating these bridges, where replacing them would have cost $55,442,000. That is less than half the cost to rehabilitate when compared to replacement, and federal funds are available for most of these projects.

What could better give North Carolina a conscience when it comes to replacing historic bridges? The answer lies in a change of state policy. Rather than the “destroy history and replace with a concrete slab” approach, change the rules that perpetuate this policy. Yes, I am well aware that some bridges are moved to a greenway or kept in place for bicycle and pedestrian use in North Carolina. This is not what we are requesting. We are asking for a safe and historic working bridge, in a place where traffic volume is low and likely to remain that way - not just for McCoy Bridge, but for all similar situations where truss bridges remain in our state.

What policies need to be changed? First of all, the DOT rule that says, “We do not replace one lane bridges with one-lane bridges in North Carolina.” This would not only give more flexibility in rehabilitation efforts, but would permit a redesign of certain bridges, allowing them to have a modern load-bearing capacity while, retaining their, historical character.

In conjunction with the easing of this rule would be the adoption of AASHTO'S (American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials) Guideline for Very Low Volume Local Roads which offers flexibility when considering width and safety performance and thus increases the likelihood that narrow bridges can remain in service on very low-volume, roads. We have been told by DOT in Raleigh that they ignore this particular rule.

Next, DOT projects (and we’re speaking of all projects, not just bridges) should start with a “town meeting” approach, where concerned residents express their concern and priorities. When the project originates at community level, this will help the DOT plan appropriately thus avoiding the adversarial stance that has been present at so many past DOT hearings.

We appreciate very much your determination to change the way the NC-DOT does business through CTP meetings (we have been present to monitor and make comments at virtually all Macon CTP meetings) and through Context Sensitive Planning. Much of this still needs to make its way to the community level, however. Some additional flexibility in DOT policy as we’ve pointed out above, would go a long way toward helping North Carolina retain, rather than destroy the living history that still remains.

Doug Woodward — Franklin, N.C.

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