The mysterious Yadkin River bridge

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 6, 2012

By Walter R. Turner
For the Salisbury Post
Scary, dangerous, frightening: These are some of the reactions of motorists traveling over the 1950s Yadkin River Bridge. What is it about the design of that structure that creates such strong, negative emotions?
The answer may surprise those who have become accustomed to holding their breath as they venture over the interstate bridge. Narrower than other interstate bridges, it lacks shoulders. So, why would such a bridge be built and why has it taken so many years to build a new one?
When interstate highways were being planned in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the North Carolina State Highway Commission took little interest in them. Nevertheless, during the early 1950s, the agency began building four-lane highways that included some limited-access entrances and exits, using a 50 percent federal/50 percent state funding formula.
One of these plans was for the “Salisbury bypass,” consisting of a new bridge across the Yadkin River and 15-mile, four-lane alignment to China Grove.
The general contractor was Foster and Creighton from Nashville, Tenn. Federal standards adapted in 1945 had recommended a decent shoulder on the right side of major highways, but that was not included on this particular bridge. The width of lanes varied between just over 11 feet to 11[0xbd] feet, with tiny spaces on the sides. Also, the roadway curves for motorists driving southward in approaching the bridge.
These compromises, which made the project financially feasible, seemed reasonable at the time.
Construction of the 880-foot Yadkin River Bridge, matched with a shorter one over the North Carolina Railroad tracks, started in 1955 and was completed by early 1957 at a cost of about $1 million. Since the bridge’s plaque indicates completion in 1955, most published articles about the bridge have used that date. But dates on bridge plaques, as in this case, are often inaccurate.
In the meantime, the historic Federal-Aid Highway Act, which funded a 41,000-mile interstate system, passed Congress and was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. The bill furnished 90 percent federal funding for construction, so states only had to add a 10 percent match. The N.C. State Highway Commission was able to access the attractive new funds to finance the road from the bridge to China Grove.
W.F. Brinkley and Son Construction Co., based in Granite Quarry, built several bridges that crossed the roadway. Other contractors graded the route and paved it to interstate standards — a 4-inch sub-grade and 9 inches of concrete that included 12-foot wide lanes and a 10-foot shoulder on the right side.
After the northbound lanes were paved, former Spencer Mayor Buddy Gettys recalls drag racing with friends on summer nights on the one-mile lanes between Julian and Peach Orchard roads. “About a dozen of us would race, two at a time, but we never got into trouble,” he said. Some races attracted crowds of 200.
In early 1958, Charles Floyd of Salisbury had returned from Army service and re-entered UNC-Chapel Hill. Coming home for a weekend, he approached the river on U.S. 29 and saw his first interstate sign — Interstate 85 —and didn’t slow down as he crossed the newly opened bridge and continued to town on the “Salisbury bypass” interstate.
“It was a great relief to know that all the big trucks and travelers would no longer have to come through downtown Salisbury,” he said.
And so the bridge, not built to interstate standards, was grandfathered in with the 15-mile roadway that did meet the standards. In 1958, the “Salisbury bypass” officially became one of North Carolina’s first five interstate segments — along with the East-West Expressway/I-40 in Winston-Salem, the Charlotte Bypass/I-85, Benson-Dunn/I-95 and Greensboro-Kernersville/I-40.
No one complained about the bridge in those days. After all, Interstate 85 served Rowan County residents well and made it much easier to drive to Charlotte or Greensboro and beyond.
Gradually, traffic grew, trucks got larger, and speed limits increased. In the early 1970s, the State Highway Commission was expanded to become the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
By 1984, NCDOT built a new six-lane alignment of I-85 that started a few miles north of the river and extended to Greensboro. The eight-lane modernization of I-85 between China Grove and Exit 81 near Spencer was constructed from 2004 to 2008. The speed limit on that section increased to 65 mph.
But what about the seven-mile section in between? Travelers accustomed to driving at higher speeds had to slow down to 55 mph — and in addition, cross the mysterious Yadkin River Bridge.
In 2005, NCDOT’s Division 9 was ready to open bids to modernize both a new bridge and the entire seven-mile segment. However, some local citizens concluded and publicized that a new bridge would damage the historic location where Indian culture once existed and were able to temporarily stop the project. The issue took two years to resolve.
By that time, Division 9 did not have adequate state funds under the equity formula, a complex method of dividing available highway funds among NCDOT’s 14 divisions.
During 2007 and 2008, the North Carolina Toll Authority considered the bridge and a modernized seven-mile segment for one of its projects. The proposal was eventually turned down because of concerns about cars having to stop at toll booths, the likelihood that many trucks would divert through Spencer, and the lack of support from Rowan and Davidson citizens, who didn’t want to pay tolls.
When Gov. Beverly Perdue took office in 2009, she and NCDOT Secretary Gene Conti searched for a financial solution. The governor requested $300 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment program, known as stimulus, but it designated only $10 million. Secretary Conti earmarked $20 million to purchase the right-of-way and secured the remainder of the $136 million cost for the bridge and surrounding roads from GARVEE, a loan against future federal highway dollars.
In early 2011, NCDOT awarded a contract for phase two to modernize the segment from Clark Road northward to where U.S. 52 enters the interstate. The cost of $65 million came from the Mobility Fund, an innovative funding source earmarked for heavily congested areas.
The legislature of 2010 approved the funding of these two projects in a way that did not affect the equity formula, but rather as an issue that had statewide and East Coast considerations. “That was really quite remarkable, probably unprecedented,” says Pat Ivey, NCDOT division engineer for Division 9.
Early predictions of the project’s cost ranged from $330 million to $400 million. The final price tag is a reasonable $201 million.
Now in August 2012, all interstate traffic is utilizing the futuristic new bridge, though the route will remain a work zone for a few more months. All of the bridge and seven miles of roadway construction will be completed by spring of 2013.
In the meantime, the mysterious bridge will be disassembled in the next few months — piece by piece, so none of it falls into the river. No one will shed any tears.
Walter R. Turner is historian at the North Carolina Transportation Museum and author of Paving Tobacco Road, A Century of Progress by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.