Old I-85 bridge dealt final hand
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Starting early this morning, the 57-year-old Yadkin River Bridge will no longer carry traffic on Interstate 85.
The N.C. Department of Transportation announced in a Wednesday press release that the aging bridge is closing permanently.
Crews will temporarily shift southbound traffic onto the new I-85 North bridge over the Yadkin River tonight, allowing two lanes of traffic to flow in each direction on the new bridge.
In May, northbound traffic was moved off the old bridge and onto two of the four lanes on the I-85 North bridge.
Southbound traffic will use the remaining two lanes until the I-85 South bridge is completed in November. Once the wider sections of I-85 South that connect to the new bridge are complete in April 2013, southbound traffic will move onto its own four-lane bridge.
According to the transportation department, more than 60,000 vehicles — many of them tractor trailers — drive over the Yadkin River on Interstate 85 each day.
The bridge they cross has been repeatedly named by AAA of the Carolinas as one of the worst in the state.
Tom Crosby, president of communications, called it “structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.” The bridge was still safe for travel, he said, but it needed to be replaced.
“It’s taken too long to do it, but we’re very glad that it’s finally been done,” Crosby said. “Given the number of people that use that bridge — truckers, commuters — it’s going to be a real pleasure now as opposed to being a nightmare.”
The road narrows on either side of the old bridge, and fairly sharp curves limit drivers’ sight distance. Accidents on the bridge could completely clog the interstate.
The two spans have virtually no shoulders, making it a struggle for emergency vehicles to reach wrecks on the bridge. With just two lanes going each way, responders didn’t have much room to work.
In Rowan County, Miller Ferry Fire Department responds to most accidents at or near the Yadkin River Bridge. Lt. Ken Womble said he thinks closing the old one for good will come as a relief.
“I really wish the whole thing was done, but we’ve been needing that bridge for a long time,” he said.
Womble said the department has responded to call after call of vehicles hitting guardrails and each other. Most accidents, he said, seem to be caused by people driving too fast on the narrow bridge and failing to slow down in bad weather.
“I just hope people know, just because it’s a new bridge, you still need to take caution,” Womble said. “I mean, it is the interstate.”
Churchland Fire Department in Davidson County also helps with accident response near the bridge.
Fire Chief Barry Frazier said he’s glad the project is moving along, but the closure will make it harder for his department to get there.
“Now we’re not going to be able to access anything from the southbound side,” Frazier said. “We’ve got a pretty good deal worked out with Linwood Fire Department… and Miller’s Ferry. So both of them are just going to have to handle it until we get there.”
Both Womble and Frazier said their call volume at the interstate has actually gone down since construction started.
Frazier said Churchland used to go out there about two or three times a week. Lately, that’s dropped to two or three times a month.
“That surprised all of us, because we figured it would go up,” Frazier said. “Maybe cars finally started paying attention and slowing down going through there.”
This construction is part of the I-85 Corridor Improvement Project in Davidson and Rowan counties.
The first phase of the project includes widening 3.3 miles of I-85 from four to eight lanes from north of Long Ferry Road (Exit 81) in Rowan County to just north of the N.C. 150 interchange in Davidson County, reconstructing the N.C. 150 interchange and replacing eight bridges, including the Yadkin River bridge.
The second phase of the project extends the widening work 3.8 miles to just north of I-85 Business in Davidson County and reconstructs the I-85 interchange at Belmont Road.
The project is scheduled to be complete in May 2013.
For more information about the project, visit www.i-85yadkinriver. com or follow NCDOT’s I-85 Twitter feed, www.twitter.com/ncdot_i85.