West Virginia Department of Transportation personnel are holding an internal meeting at their state headquarters on Thursday to discuss the pros and cons of a proposed idea to light up the New River Gorge Bridge.
“We haven’t decided that we want to move forward, but it is something we want to explore,” says the DOT's Director of Program Planning and Administration, Robert Pennington.
Rumors are circulating in the community about a public hearing on the issue, but Pennington says they are unfounded. “If it would go past the vetting process, a public meeting would be held in Fayette County, but we're not at that point,” he says.
Fayette County State Sen. Bill Laird was invited to the meeting and plans to attend.
“I just intend to listen and gain additional details and learn more about what it is they may or may not have in mind,” Laird said.
Reports started circulating about the project last year. A document created by the WV DOT for the fall 2010 WV Transportation Planning Conference, titled “Update on In-House Visualization Efforts,” is available online. It shows 3D renderings of the lit bridge at night. Several lighting schemes are presented; one shows lights on both the bridge’s arch and roadway. A note below the images explains, “The conceptual visualization does not represent a final implementation proposal.”
In February 2011, the “Reaching the Summit 2013” Steering Committee — a local group whose goal is to prepare for the Boy Scouts National Jamboree in 2013 — heard a report-back about a meeting between the group’s “Public Safety/ Transportation” sub-committee and WV DOT Cabinet Secretary Paul Mattox. According to the meeting minutes, several issues were discussed, including “appropriate bridge lighting — New River Gorge bridge, etc.”
Robin Snyder, chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the New River Gorge National River, was present at a meeting several months ago in which Mattox and his staff discussed the idea with the National Parks Service.
“My impression is that they are looking at it as economic development for the area,” she says. “They were talking about the lighting of a bridge in Mississippi and comparing it to the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia.
“As far as the economic development, that’s outstanding, but we want to make sure they’re looking at some of the issues we deal with at the Parks Service — bird migration, bat species, the night sky, and safety.
“Our recommendation to them was that we would love to see some sort of public scoping of the project, some sort of environmental assessment.”
Rumors about the project are many, and details are few. Strong opinions, both for and against the idea, have been expressed by members of the community on Facebook and other online forums. Many have unanswered questions and are eager for more information.
Calentha Quesenberry, executive director of the Historic Fayetteville Convention & Visitors Bureau, wonders who would benefit economically from the project, who would pay for it, and how the lighting would be viewed by the public.
“I still have a lot of questions about it,” she says. “Right now I don’t really see the benefit of it. If they can convince me otherwise, I’d be the first to say I’m open to suggestions and I would change my mind.”
“My primary concern is how little we know,” says Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender. He says the Fayette County Commission was not notified of this week’s meeting.
“As far as I know, there are no other local governments in Fayette County that have received such a notification or been asked to express an opinion or participate in it,” he says. “It seems to be somewhat of a mystery.”