Who you gonna believe—me, or your lyin’ eyes?

By Hugh Rogers

            In the last week of April, the Thomas City Council met to hear from the state Division of Highways (DOH) on their plans for Corridor H. The buzz about an alternative route had been growing louder. “Go North,” it said—reminiscent of another campaign more than thirty years ago. That campaign had worked. The Corridor turned north at Elkins, and was making its way around Parsons instead of Seneca Rocks. Could it do the same for Thomas, avoiding Blackwater Canyon? 

            No, no, no, said the DOH. A decision had been made fifteen years ago, when a “Final” Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) certified its choice to head straight for the river from the top of Backbone Mountain and then cross Route 32 between Thomas and Davis. To reconsider northern alternatives, pick one, re-study its environmental impacts, and design that roadway would require a long delay. Ten years, probably. And funding would be uncertain.

            We had done what we could by filing comments on the EIS. The Federal Highway Administration had not signed a Record of Decision, so there was no final endorsement to challenge. Yet it allowed the DOH to go forward with its single route. Public complaints had been expressed again in 2019, after a “re-start” was announced at Blackwater Falls State Park. And again, in heartfelt tones, at this meeting.

            But the DOH did not come to Thomas to persuade us that its choice was correct. They believed that day had passed. Rather, it hoped to assuage our discontent.

            To those who objected that a four-lane bridge over the Blackwater River would intrude on the historic district, Jason Foster, Deputy State Highway Engineer, had a message: It won’t be that bad! He offered an analogy.

            “Are any of you familiar with the Fayette Station bridge in the New River Gorge?”

            Yes, some of us were familiar with the old truss bridge, now used by walkers and bikers and one-way for cars. It was just above the river, far below the iconic arch bridge that carries Corridor L (US 19) from rim to rim.

            “When you’re down on that bridge,” he went on, “you’re not really aware of the new bridge above you.”

            Travis Long, Director of DOH’s Technical Support Division, went even farther: a Blackwater bridge could enhance the historic site! It could be designed to blend in: rather than the blocky concrete piers we’re used to seeing on most four-lanes, it could rest on elegant steel piers, even a steel arch. 

            He pointed to a set of photo illustrations standing on tables at the side of the room. The centerpiece featured the bridge concept photo-shopped onto a low-angle aerial photo of the river, rail-trail, and historic area. Long called it “a shrunk-down New River Gorge bridge.”

            Does it make sense to shrink an icon? It’s the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the country (the longest in the world, until a bridge in China opened in 2003). The Blackwater bridge would be one-third as long. Its scaled-down arch would stand on concrete blocks beside the trail. The width of the deck can’t be shrunk, as it must carry four lanes of traffic.

            Shrinking the height makes the biggest difference. The New River span, balanced on platforms halfway up the gorge, soars 876 feet above the river. From below, it’s a composition of lines against the sky. No wonder you don’t feel it as a looming presence. The Blackwater bridge is less than a fifth as high.

            Maybe we should call it a mashed-down New River Gorge bridge.

            Although Foster’s analogy doesn’t work, we’ll credit the effort to reduce the bridge’s impact on a place where it doesn’t belong. A steel arch bridge allows landscape to be seen through it. But it can’t mitigate the loss of a peaceful and instructive setting.

            More reassurance from the DOH team: they’re considering “false cuts” and earth berms to reduce noise and visibility; they promise enhancements to the Allegheny Trail; their consultants hope to establish once and for all whether the highway would be seen from Lindy Point. 

            On a point of importance for the City of Thomas, Travis Long emphasized that the truck bypass will be built. As reported in the Voice, many people, some of them in local government as well as in the DOH, had been skeptical. The bypass would connect Rt. 32 west of the Corridor H interchange with US 219 north of town. 

            That raised another question: could they build the bypass first? They don’t know. Can it be built as a “usable section” of Corridor H? Probably not. It will be treated as an addition to 219. They repeated their commitment to build it, but they don’t know how the funding will work.

            Coincidentally, DOH people call the northern alternative a bypass. Both routes pass outside the towns, of course. The difference is the intersection with Rt. 32 on their preferred alternative. Many who live there consider it would separate towns that are naturally growing together. Jason Foster thinks it’s crucial for economic development. In his mind, a northern route would fail that test of an Appalachian Development Corridor. Travelers would go right on by—as if there were no exits? 

            In his presentation, Long praised the towns for becoming “destinations.” One supposes he knows what that means.