Four-day shutdowns of James River Bridge scheduled this fall

Published 5:22 pm Thursday, April 20, 2023

Two separate four-day shutdowns of the James River Bridge this fall will be more than an inconvenience to Max Errico.

He’s the owner of Carrollton’s Napoli É Italian restaurant on Route 17, and expects – in his words – to “lose a lot of money” while the Virginia Department of Transportation replaces the drawbridge’s lift cables.

According to VDOT engineer Shannon Ternes, there are 80 2-inch-thick wire cables, 40 on each drawbridge tower, that are original to the 41-year-old bridge. They’ve been rated to be in “severe” condition since 2012.

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“It’s still safe to operate the bridge, but they are coming up on their service life,” Ternes told Isle of Wight County supervisors on April 6.

A failure in even one of the cables, he said, could lead to an even longer shutdown of the bridge while VDOT undergoes a lengthy procurement process to get a replacement cable in place.

To head off the likelihood of a cable failing, VDOT plans to replace all 80 over the course of two four-day shutdowns, one for each tower. The first will occur sometime on or after Nov. 15.

Each closure would begin at 1 a.m. Friday and last through 5 p.m. the following Tuesday, during which time all four lanes of the bridge will be impassable.

VDOT hasn’t narrowed down exactly when each closure will occur, stating only that the two shutdowns will occur sometime between the November date and Feb. 15. There will be at least two weeks between the first shutdown and the second.

Errico says a lot of his customers come from the Newport News side of the bridge, making the planned shutdowns “a big loss” for his business.

Isle of Wight County’s emergency services will also be impacted. Brian Carroll, chief of the Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad, said his medics transport patients four to eight times per day to Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News.

The wait time between a 911 call and an ambulance arriving at a residence shouldn’t be affected, but it may take longer to transport someone to an alternate hospital, Carroll said. 

The closest alternative hospitals best equipped to handle cardiac emergencies, he said, would be either Bon Secours’ Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth, an extra 10 minutes away, or an extra 17-minute drive to Sentara’s Norfolk General Hospital.

Losing access to Riverside Regional “takes a Level 2 trauma center out of play for our county as well as parts of Surry,” said Supervisor Joel Acree.

Riverside is set to break ground in July on a 50-bed Smithfield-area hospital, but it won’t open until 2025. But deferring the work two years could “potentially complicate funding scenarios for other projects,” Ternes said.

His purpose in briefing the supervisors seven months ahead of time, he said, is to allow first responders and other stakeholders to start making plans for the impending closure.

The November to February window, Ternes said, is intended to avoid impacts on summer travel and the peregrine falcons nesting on the bridge’s north tower. VDOT is prohibited from disturbing the nest from Feb. 15 through July 15.

During the two shutdowns, traffic from Isle of Wight County headed toward Newport News will be detoured through Suffolk across the Godwin Bridge to the I-664 interchange and the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel. A VDOT traffic analysis projects the Godwin Bridge will be 31% over capacity during peak morning hours on weekdays and 35% over capacity during peak afternoon hours, resulting in longer traffic queues from 5-10 a.m. and from 2-8 p.m. The I-664 interchange will exceed capacity by 55% in the morning and 34% in the afternoon. The Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel will exceed capacity by 34% in the morning and 47% in the afternoon.

VDOT has already placed its orders for the manufacturing of the new cables, and expects to award the project contract in late August or September. The contractor will receive a 10% incentive to finish early and a 20% disincentive, or forfeiture, for finishing late.

The original two-lane James River Bridge opened in 1928. The current four-lane bridge dates to 1982.