Study says 'Move Lee Highway'

By: 
Lisa Perry

By Lisa Perry

A Radford University study recommended that Lee Highway should be moved from the top of local limestone icon Natural Bridge “as soon as it is practical for the agencies involved, sooner better than later.”

While the state highway will not cause the global failure of the bridge, vibrations from the highway are impacting the bridge, said Dr. Skip Watts, director of the Radford University Geohazards Research Center that recently concluded a second months-long geological study of the state park centerpiece.

“We threw everything at the bridge that you can imagine in terms of technology,” Watts announced at a press conference at the Virginia Department of Transportation offices in Lexington Friday. Exhibiting a seismographic printout showing vibrations as traffic crossed the bridge, Watts noted, “We can think of these as miniature earthquakes.”

Testing concluded that there are some fractures and hollow spots within the bridge, and some sediment-filled cavities.

Even so, Watts said the earliest predicted potential global failure of the bridge will not occur until somewhere between 5,000 and 14,400 years.

With that said, regarding local stability, nature does what nature does, Watts projected. Small rocks and bridge bits affected by water, vibration, and gravity could fall to the trail below.

The current highway comes very close to sensitive rock masses on an upper corner of the bridge.

“The sensitive rock masses have potential to fall and could impact the trail below,” Watts said.  The sensitive rock areas are currently buttressed by Virginia Department of Transportation guards put in place in 2000.

Watts also conducted a similar study in 1999 after a piece of rock fell from the tourist attraction and caused a fatality. Having the surveys allowed his team to compare bridge condition now to the study completed 18 years ago.

“There are places on there similar to 1999. There needs to be some concern,” Watts said. He added that scaling could lessen or nearly eliminate the chance of falling rock, and recommended that scaling of the underside of the bridge be completed every five to ten years.

Any large rock fall, he said, would be predicated by warnings, and would likely occur during temperature changes.

“There would be a short period of sound warning, a ‘snap, crackle, pop’ as the strength is reducing,” he said. “The likelihood of being hurt is pretty rare. Most are going to fall when no one is there.”

VDOT Spokeswoman Sandy Myers said the study looking for possible new routes for Route 11 have been underway since January. The goal is to find at least two possibilities. VDOT is planning for public input opportunities to be conducted this summer.  Should VDOT and the Department of Conservation and Recreation opt to move the highway, the process could take as long as a decade. The next steps would be to find and budget funding and conduct a feasibility study, she said.

Results of the current study also led Watts to rule out the option of building a bridge over the Natural Bridge.

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