Batesville Residents Seek to Deter Truck Traffic After Bridge Upgrade

A tractor-trailer gets stuck trying to maneuver through Batesville, right behind a sign advertising a community meeting on traffic issues. Submitted.

More than 150 people jammed into the Batesville United Methodist Church on March 22 to participate in a meeting with county and state officials about an impending bridge improvement project on Plank Road (Rt. 692) near the center of the small rural village. Local residents heard about the project only last month when Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) workers knocked on a couple of doors to inform property owners they would be working in the right of way near the bridge.

Already plagued by large trucks barreling through Batesville and regularly bottoming out at the intersection with Miller School Road, residents worry that an upgraded bridge will open the floodgates to truckers looking for an east-west cut-through on Plank Road between Rt. 29 and Rt. 250/I64. The Batesville Community Club (Ruritans) and Batesville Historical Society organized the March meeting, and neighbors from North Garden to Afton to Crozet were also in attendance as State Senator Creigh Deeds, county Supervisor Jim Andrews, and VDOT and county police representatives listened and tried to address concerns. 

The discussion began with why the project is happening now. “This project’s start date [set for early May] was actually set by the Culpeper District Structure and Bridge Office,” explained Ed San Nicholas, Acting Resident Administrator for VDOT, “and it was done in concert with Albemarle County Fire and Rescue. It’s really just an upgrade to the superstructure, nothing to be done with the substructure.” San Nicholas said that the bridge, built in 1903, has a 17-ton weight limit, which won’t support “large fire apparatus” as it continues to deteriorate. “If we don’t take care of it now, it will begin to affect the ability of fire and rescue to respond, as they will have to find alternate routes, which will increase response time.”

VDOT plans to upgrade this bridge on Plank Road over the Mechums River, just west of Batesville. Photo: Lisa Martin.

While Batesville has been asking the county and VDOT to address speeding and truck traffic on Plank Road for more than a decade, many at the meeting were focused on the increased tractor-trailer presence that an upgraded bridge would allow. Residents said they are not arguing against bridge safety, but pointing to the “unintended consequences of infrastructure improvements,” as one attendee put it. 

Many attendees spoke about the narrow, winding nature of Plank Road, emphasizing the danger large trucks pose to those walking, biking, and driving smaller vehicles. A North Garden resident who is in the trucking business commented, “I can say categorically that if I’m running a large pickup with a legal eight-foot-wide trailer and encounter another pickup with a trailer, I have to drive off the road to pass. There are so many places where that road simply cannot accommodate a large tractor-trailer.”

A large crowd discusses the impact a bridge upgrade will have on tractor-trailer traffic through Batesville with county and state officials.

Several county school bus drivers who drive Batesville routes were in attendance and agreed. “There are five full-sized school buses that pick up this area’s kids,” said a driver named Ms. Winter. “That means 41 feet long, 11 feet high, 10 tons. I’ve driven the same route for five years and I’ve never seen traffic like this, or road conditions like this. Two vehicles of that size simply cannot fit on a road this size, and it’s incredibly dangerous for me to have to come around a blind curve and slam on my brakes and get over into the dirt and tree branches on the side of the road. We need VDOT to help us a little here.”

A group of Batesville and other local citizens worked for several years to get a through-truck restriction on the section of Plank Rd. from Rt. 29 to Miller School Road, which they achieved, but according to some speakers that restriction has not been enforced. Neighbors asked the police representatives if they would follow up on photos of speeding trucks if local residents took them, and the police said yes, if the resident was willing to go to court to testify.

Batesville resident Jack Heyrman drew applause from the crowd by insisting the bridge project be delayed. “You must not start May 1,” he said to the VDOT officials. “By the time the [truck restriction] impact study is done and can have any effect, trucks will already be rolling through. The state, the county, and VDOT—all of you need to work together to delay this project. I got no letter in the mail about this, and this project will close the road for a couple of months. We should have all been notified and we weren’t, so the only responsible thing to do here is to delay this.”

A tractor-trailer takes up most of Plank Road as it barrels through Batesville.

Kristen Rabourdin, who owns the Batesville Market, concurred about the lack of notice. “It really would have been nice, as a business, to get a heads-up that there was going to be closure on the road during a really busy time,” she said. “My livelihood, my employees’ livelihood depends on traffic that comes through.” She folded the many issues surrounding the bridge upgrade into a single theme. “It’s really about preserving the historic district. It’s about preserving the way of life for everyone who lives up and down this country road. There needs to be a way for our kids to exist safely on the street, on their bikes.”

A woman who said she’s lived in Batesville for 54 years stressed the safety aspect of the debate from the other side. “I’ve had one of the firefighters tell me that if my house was on fire, he’s crossing that bridge to get to me no matter what it takes. We need that bridge to be fixed for fire and rescue vehicles. And some local people here have tractor-trailers and haul heavy equipment, and they need the bridge fixed, too, so keep that in mind.”

Sam Speedie, who in past years lived on the corner of Plank and Miller School Roads, said there are frequent instances of jackknifed trucks getting stuck in that intersection. “These can require a police response, require a tow, in some cases knocking out the power infrastructure and access to internet—these incidents can have a long tail.” 

Speedie also inquired about alternative traffic calming methods for Plank Road. “Traffic tables or pillows [flatter, softer types of speed bumps] could be used as emergency services-friendly forms of traffic calming that can address unsafe speeds where vehicles are coming over a blind rise at 50 miles per hour, bearing down on the crosswalk at the market.”

VDOT Resident Engineer for Albemarle County Carrie Shepheard responded that those aren’t allowed on Plank Road. “Unfortunately, traffic calming in that traditional sense does not apply to this route because it’s a ‘collector.’ The purpose of a collector road is to move vehicles, move traffic, and traffic calming measures like speed bumps and things that you’re mentioning are for local roads, residential streets, like in a neighborhood. I understand that it’s 25 miles an hour [in Batesville] but according to our purposes, it’s a collector.”

Afton resident Tracy Browne asked about a compromise. “I’m wondering if there could be a happy medium where maybe the bridge is sized to accommodate the majority of emergency vehicles but not make it viable for large [semi-truck type] commercial vehicles?” 

Shepheard said no. “Our business is to upgrade bridges so that anyone in the travelling public can use them,” she said. “We can’t purposefully improve a bridge [but] have a set weight limit—our goal is to make it safe for all legal loads. The best option for the community is to pursue a through-truck restriction, working with the county.”

County transportation planner Kevin McDermott, who worked with Batesville residents five years ago on the truck restriction to the east of the village, said that residents need to prepare for a long haul. He described an almost two-year process to request a restriction, beginning with a county study that analyzes historic traffic patterns and road conditions, followed by a public hearing and approval process with the county Board of Supervisors, followed by another regulatory approval from the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The latter step alone could take up to nine months.

“This is a big fight,” said McDermott. “There’s a lot of people in the trucking industry who will come out, they will say this [restriction] can’t happen. So, I’m just letting you all know that once we do the study, we have to make sure that we can convince everybody to actually want to put that truck restriction on the road. So, keep that in mind.”

Batesville resident and former Batesville Market owner Alex Struminger summed up the community’s intention in taking up the fight. “We’re not saying we want to slow down the wheels of progress in terms of improving the area,” he said. “In fact, what we’re kind of saying is, we’ve already improved it—we have created a community here that is thriving. We’ve got the store up and we’ve got young people with families living here and little children running around. People all know each other, we all help each other. This is a real community of the kind that you don’t see just anywhere. So, we want to keep it, and we’re saying [to the authorities] that we’ve arrived at something and you all should support us.” 


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