Editorial: The Benjamin Harrison Bridge needs to be replaced, but it probably won’t happen
Let’s get to everybody’s favorite topic when it comes to motorists commuting from Charles City to Prince George, Hopewell, and other southside localities: The Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge.
Over the past two years, the bridge has caused as many headaches as the Airport Road/New Kent Highway roundabout did when it was first constructed. Unfortunately for commuters who use the bridge, there wasn’t a simple detour. Motorists would have to either use the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, approximately 25 miles southeast along Route 5 (John Tyler Memorial Highway), or head west to traverse Interstate 295 South to cross the river, a detour of roughly 16 miles or so.
The bridge’s nightmarish tenure within the past couple of years only frustrates drivers more. From overnight closures to one lane of traffic, maintenance seems to be occurring at least twice a month for the bridge that was constructed in 1966 and rebuilt in 1978 after an accident. And because of its age of 42 years, the bridge probably won’t be replaced for a long time.
The Benjamin Harrison Bridge is convenient for several southside companies to get to Interstate 64 quickly. The connector, however, has a lot of drawbacks. Specifically, the drawbridge.
The drawbridge mechanism has been disastrous when it malfunctions. What typically takes an hour or so to repair (at minimum) can quickly escalate into a day-long operation and result in detours and closures. If you’ve been a fan favorite follower on social media, just look at posts about the Benjamin Harrison Bridge and see the numerous complaints about being stuck on it. Normal openings for ships are usually tolerable, but as many motorists know, it usually doesn’t fall into that category.
Then the issue becomes about replacing the bridge. Right now, I don’t think there are any plans to do that. First, the costs could be in the range of $25-30 million dollars. Next, land would probably have to be purchased to begin a higher elevation, and if you’ve seen the Prince George side of that bridge, it probably isn’t feasible. Third, as I said earlier its only 42 years old after the repairs were made in 1978. That’s not a lifetime for a bridge. Finally, the bridge serves as a habitat for Peregrine falcons, a species that was once endangered. The towers of the bridge served as habitats and is monitored by several organizations that include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and several conservation groups.
Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT) will continue to put bandages on the bridge instead of conducting an all-out surgery. It’s more cost efficient (for the time being) and there hasn’t been enough pushback or support for the structure’s replacement.
Is it time for a new bridge? It definitely is. I believe the complaints and traffic that has picked up has warranted it. Will it happen? I highly doubt it. The financial cost is probably too high. The ability and logistics need additional information to warrant that decision, and as long as the James River serves as a thoroughfare from Richmond to Hampton Roads for ships, the bridge isn’t going to shut down.
So, unfortunately until then, those using the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge need to prepare for more detours, delays, and driving nightmares for a few more years.