County looking at Gray Drive bridge proposals

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To consult with Williamston

By Stan Welch

For more than twenty years, the Gray Drive bridge has been a source of contention and controversy in Williamston. Now the issue has come up again, with a recent set of proposals offered by the railroad to make a final decision on the bridge’s fate. Those proposals were the topic of discussion at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting, albeit a vague discussion. The lack of details was due to the fact that the finance committee, which first received and reviewed the proposals, tabled any action on them, until officials from Williamston are consulted.

The bridge was first closed in 1991, and had remained closed until December 2006 when a ribbon cutting ceremony was held. At that time, the bridge had been repaired to the standards in place in 1991, a condition that at least one public official found unsatisfactory.

Sen. Billy O’Dell told The Journal at the ribbon cutting “This is not an issue that is resolved. We have constantly gone forward and tried to hold out for a better bridge. We will continue to work with the state, the county and the town.”

His words proved prophetic as the bridge was again closed within months as safety concerns arose. Then mayor Phillip Clardy closed the bridge after receiving complaints from several citizens.

The bridge was eventually reopened and remained open about four years until being closed earlier this year.

The bridge has been a source of controversy, as some citizens would like to see it remain closed due to traffic and safety concerns, while others say that emergency vehicles have to travel a circuitous route to the areas served by the bridge.

The 12.74 mile rail spur which the bridge spans was abandoned by CSX Railroad, but was soon purchased by Steven Hawkins, CEO of Western Carolina Railway Service Corporation, through its subsidiary Greenville & Western Railway Company, LLC.

County Attorney Mike Pitts advised the Council that any detailed discussion would best be done in executive session, since contractual issues were involved, and legal advice required.

The proposals apparently range from the railroad, which owns the bridge, providing continuous funding to the county for maintenance to doing repairs to possible closure and demolition of the bridge.

The railroad is currently under a court order to maintain the bridge at the level of fitness required when the court ordered settlement was reached. For many who use the bridge, that level of fitness equates to an unsafe situation.

Councilwoman Cindy Wilson explained that the bridge was originally built one hundred years ago, during horse and buggy days. She told the Council that the issue has been ongoing for years and years, and added that there is a petition from some residents to close the bridge, while others say that emergency response would be affected by such a decision. She suggested that one alternative might be to grade the road down to the point where a regular crossing could be implemented.

Councilman Tommy Dunn quickly challenged that option, saying that the terrain at the site would make it virtually impossible to achieve a line of sight crossing.

Finance Committee Chairman Francis Crowder reiterated that the Town of Williamston had half the decision to make and noted that there was no call for action by the Council at this time. “We will bring the matter to the whole Council once we have considered this and spoken with the folks in Williamston.”