Scenic Byway Bridge–Wider, Faster, Straighter?

When Rap Owings and his family learned about VDOT’s plan for the bridge near their farm in Banco, on Route 231 west of Madison, they were concerned. VDOT was planning to take out the existing bridge and rebuild it nearly twice as wide. Plus, they were going to straighten the road for two thirds of a mile, widen the right of way, take out trees and dynamite a rock outcropping.

Mike Owings, Rap’s son, says, “We wanted [the bridge] to have as little impact as possible on the properties nearby, and to respect the character of the land. Obviously, we want it to be safe — at the same time respecting the landscape and how beautiful it is.” Route 231 is a Virginia Scenic Byway, but VDOT’s approach would make it feel more like a highway — increasing the visual impact of the road while eroding the pastoral character of the land.

Rap and Mike Owings are both PEC members, and they called PEC’s attention to the situation. PEC responded by sending an email alert to our Madison County subscribers, pointing out issues with the new bridge design. For one, the curves and narrow shoulders that VDOT proposed to eliminate encourage drivers to go at a safe speed as they approach the blind intersection with Aylor Road. Wider, straighter roads cue people to drive faster. Also, VDOT’s high impact plans — taking private property and destroying natural features — were simply unnecessary, given modest traffic counts on the road.

PEC’s email alert was forwarded around the community, drawing numerous comments to VDOT in writing and in person at an October public hearing. Other networks also played a role, Mike Owings says. On most mornings, his father gets together with a group of retired men who socialize in the back room of the Madison County Co-op, and these friends came through for him at the hearing. All told, about 50 people attended the meeting, and over 40 sent written comments. Mike Owings says that VDOT representatives told him it was the largest turnout they’d ever seen for a project of this scale.

While the outcome remains uncertain, Mike Owings says their family has heard back from VDOT and from James Rich on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and they feel optimistic that VDOT will improve the design of the bridge.

This fall, PEC also sent an email calling attention to Madison County issues in advance of the elections — particularly how to prevent the kind of strip development that now dominates Route 29 in Greene County. Beth Burnam, PEC’s Madison County Conservation Officer, says, “I think people are starting to realize that decisions made at the state and local level can change the way Madison County looks and feels, and if we want a good result, we need to get involved.”