The VDOT proposal to replace two aging bridges on Rt. 11 and the northbound bridge on I-81 – all on Cedar Creek in the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park near Strasburg – reflects a persistent failure to adequately address historic resources in road planning. A coalition of preservation and conservation groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, met at the site and at Belle Grove February 18 to address the gap and discuss a better alternative.
VDOT’s plan calls for building a third Rt. 11 bridge between the two existing bridges, which would be removed. The new bridge would run beside the existing southbound road within view of highly valued historic resources; the Cedar Creek Civil War Battlefield, the Daniel Stickley Farm and Mills, the Cooley Farm, traces of the Valley Pike and the historic ford at Cedar Creek. VDOT planners did not address any of these features in its environmental review, focusing solely on resources within the footprint of new construction.
Coalition members said such a restrictive review fails to address the full cultural landscape as required under federal and state law and fails to meet the intent of federal historic preservation rules. Conservation groups also questioned how VDOT could justify new berms for a new bridge in the flood plain of Cedar Creek, perhaps the most pristine major stream in the lower Valley, when they could reuse the berms of the existing north-bound lanes.
New berms would require the deposition of around 300 dump truck loads of rock and soil in a fairly mature riparian forested buffer while the removal of the existing berms would involve a similar level of disturbance. This unnecessary degradation of wetlands and water quality would occur on a site where tens of thousands of men fought and many died during the Battle of Cedar Creek.
A far better alternative, provided to VDOT by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, calls for reuse of the berms of the existing northbound bridge, to better screen the historic resources. The land around the existing southbound road could then provide public access and trails to serve as a southern gateway to the national park for local residents and visitors.
VDOT has complained that a design change would cost too much at this stage because it has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineering. Coalition members countered that if VDOT had adequately engaged the public and addressed the full cultural landscape of historic resources early in the planning process, then project acceptance and approval would be far more efficient.
Coalition members are committed to pressing VDOT and other state agencies for reform of highway planning processes to address the impact of construction projects on the larger natural and cultural landscape, as required by federal standards for historic resources. This shift will be vital as VDOT proceeds with the recently announced plan for a new I-81 bridge over Cedar Creek which involves planning for the replacement of the I-81 / I-66 interchange, several hundred miles to the north in Warren County.