Is a bridge still possible?

Published 5:40 pm Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Surry EDA official hopes to promote discussion

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

SURRY — The Chairman of the Surry Economic Development Authority thinks starting a conversation about a bridge across the James River would be a forward-thinking strategy to ensure the future of a county that is losing population and lacks basics, such as a grocery store.  

“Surry is going to be stuck in the dark ages unless something happens,” said Sam Edwards, chairman of Surry’s EDA.

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The Surry Board of Supervisors, however, has a different opinion. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Not right now. 

The Board decided during a work session Thursday that going to the state about a bridge at this time would be an inefficient use of “political capital,” according to Carsley District Supervisor Kenneth Holmes.  

“It would just be spinning our wheels,” said Bacon’s Castle District Supervisor Judy Lyttle.

Surry District Supervisor John Seward pointed out that Dominion’s new power lines across the river continue to be challenged because of its effect on the view at Jamestown.

“I can’t imagine anyone over there (James City County) letting us put a bridge up,” he said. 

As the EDA chairman, Edwards had independently consulted with VDOT about getting on the agency’s 40-year plan. 

Edwards said VDOT replied with a letter that indicated that the process would start at the local level with the Board of Supervisors. He had hoped the Board would pass a resolution to get the ball rolling, as he estimated it would take 100 years for the county to feel any economic impact.  

Currently, Surry residents are dependent upon the Jamestown-Scotland ferry to get to James City County or the Peninsula. The other routes into and out of the county are the narrow, two-lane highways, 31 and 10. 

“We tolerate the ferry and the ferry is interesting,” said Holmes. 

The ferry, which is free, is also a popular draw for tourists. 

Edwards said the lack of easy access has made it difficult to attract businesses with larger workforces, not to mention the distance to medical facilities. Hospitals accessible by land — John Randolph in Hopewell and Obici in Suffolk — are 30-40 minutes away. The ferry itself takes about 15 minutes to cross the river after loading and unloading.

Edwards, whose family’s business — Edwards Virginia Smokehouse — started on the ferry, quoted his father, Wallace, “There’s nothing worse than having a heart attack and you’re riding a ferry.” 

The ferry started in 1925 and is today the only 24-hour state-run ferry in Virginia. 

The question of building a bridge from Surry to James City County dates back to the 1970s, but it was basically killed when Franz VonSchilling, owner of Mount Pleasant, deeded a parcel of land at the northern tip of Swann’s Point to the Department of the Interior. 

Swann’s Point is the closest piece of land to James City County and the logical location for a bridge to enter Surry County. The deed, enacted in 1974, blocks construction of a bridge on the property and is irrevocable except by mutual agreement. 

In 1985, VDOT floated the idea of raising tolls and the bridge discussion began anew. At that time, the Board of Supervisors favored the bridge.

Discussions at the time centered on concerns that haven’t changed — access to medical care and other services, as well as the possibility that a bridge would permanently alter the rural atmosphere of the county. 

Tolls on the ferry were dropped in 1997, and in 2009, VDOT threatened to cut the hours and number of boats, but public opposition blocked that. 

Today, VDOT is in the process of building a new ferryboat, the Powhatan, at a cost of $24 million. The ferry costs about $12 million a year to operate, according to VDOT. 

The ferry transports about 2,500 vehicles a day, according to VDOT.

While the ferry system is firmly established, Edwards said that not giving a possible bridge consideration would be unfair to future generations. 

Holmes acknowledged that the question of a bridge will have to be addressed.

Drewry is not opposed to the idea, but prefers getting with the county’s state representatives. During the meeting, Drewry predicted, however, that the bridge would only happen when the population on Middle Peninsula grows and squeezes over, “like ketchup.”  {/mprestriction}