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Closure of bridge leaves community on verge of isolation

WALTER LITTRELL • Jan 21, 2007 at 7:12 AM

Pauline Smith, secretary for the Town of St. Charles and a Broad Street resident, points out some of the many structural failures on a bridge over Stone Creek and the ways the creek is undercutting the road. The road serves as the only way out of town should Main Street have to close. Walter LIttrell photo.


ST. CHARLES - A small town with financial woes is not all that unusual, especially in a rural area. But for the secluded coal town of St. Charles, a lack of revenue to repair a road could someday further isolate the community.

The road in question used to serve as a secondary way out of town. But since the town has blocked off an unsafe bridge, should something happen that obstructed Main Street, folks in town and points north would just have to stay there.

With only a couple of hundred residents remaining in the once-booming coal camp, annual revenue from all income sources has been steady at only $15,600 for the past few years. And in fact, said Town Secretary Pauline Smith recently, she merely copied last year's budget to create a new document for the current year. She doesn't expect much change for the upcoming year, as the town only gets 25 cents per $100 of value on property taxes.

With only $15,300 in estimated expenses, the town manages to get its bills paid. But it has to depend on grants for improvement projects such as water and sewer. Forget sidewalks, police protection and such. Volunteers provide other services such as fire protection and emergency services. And when disaster strikes, the town has to rely on agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While main roads are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, town streets are the responsibility of the municipality, and when there's no money in the till, the surfaces deteriorate and there appears to be nowhere to turn for help.

It is this situation that has forced the town to block off a bridge to traffic, leaving residents along a portion of that street to take the long way home while wondering what would happen should emergency services be needed at any of the handful of homes along the street.

Town Secretary Pauline Smith, who also happens to live just across the bridge over Stone Creek on Broad Street, is one of those people.

She points out that not only is the bridge in dire need of replacement, but also that the street is becoming more dangerous by the day. The narrow one-lane road meanders alongside the creek only a short distance from beginning to end, but the stream is undercutting its banks, and parts of the pavement are beginning to drop off and slide into the creek.

Cars, pickups and smaller vehicles travel the street at their own risk - and many do on a daily basis - but Smith said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a fuel truck driver that is willing to take a chance to bring vital heating oil to her home. She shudders at the thought of what would happen if a fire truck or ambulance had to attempt the road.

"What if a fire breaks out? Can the fire truck get to us without getting in the creek? That would be a pretty mess, now wouldn't it?" she said recently.

The bridge has been a headache for the town for several years, but a spring flood in 2002 began eating away at the rock foundations of the structure. While FEMA did provide some funding to repair some areas of the streambank, it did not deem the damage to the bridge as something it would pay for. The agency did provide money for debris removal at the bridge, but that was all, said Smith.

A later high-water event did more damage, but this time an emergency was not declared and FEMA rules were not triggered. Each time the water gets up, the damage worsens, ultimately forcing town leaders to block off the bridge to vehicular traffic.

The bridge surface has also seen the ravages of time, and Smith said she has to be careful when just walking across it.

In addition to seeking FEMA funds, the town has approached Virginia Department of Transportation officials, county officials, state legislators and even U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher without success.

None have been so blunt and have couched their answers a bit more politically correct, but at every solicitation the basic answer has been "that's outside my jurisdiction."

VDOT resident administrator James Parsons said recently that state rules must be followed, and the state is not allowed to spend state money on any kind of repairs, maintenance or construction on non-state projects.

"It's a town street, so we can't spend money on it," he said.

County Administrator Dane Poe said the county doesn't have funds for road projects at all, and the county can't pay for roadwork in St. Charles or any other town. He did say he once contacted the Virginia National Guard in hopes the troops could take on the project, but the Guard already had its projects for the year scheduled. The following year troops were being sent to the War on Terror, so he hasn't approached the Guard again.

With the bridge blocked off, town leaders are concerned about not only the street's residents, but also about how folks in town and north of town will be able to get out of the deep mountain hollow should something happen that blocks off Main Street.

Situated as it is, Main Street is the only route in and out of town. Broad Street used to serve as a side route out of town, but with the bridge blocked off there is no other alternative due to the way the creek winds along.

Smith, Mayor Larry Holman and other members of the Town Council are hoping publicity of their plight will somehow prod someone, somewhere to find a way to correct what they consider a safety and health issue for more than just the few households - most of which are composed of elderly or single older women - along the street.

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