The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded Greene County a $520,000 federal grant to restore a historic covered bridge that is closed to traffic and carries few pedestrians in a lightly-traveled area of Xenia Twp.
All told, the Stevenson Road Covered Bridge will cost $650,000 to restore, according to engineering estimates, with the county kicking in the last $130,000. The bridge sits alongside Stevenson Road, connecting grassy areas on either side of Massie’s Creek, and is not attached to a park, bike/walk path or other attraction.
Ohio has more than 100 remaining covered bridges, five in Greene County, and many historical groups support preserving them.
“Covered bridges are pretty rare everywhere now,” said Catherine Wilson, director of the Greene County Historical Society. “A lot of tourists visit them.”
But Xenia Twp. trustee Jim Reed, who was not involved in the county’s grant application, is upset about federal priorities, given that spending on a nonfunctional bridge will cost more than Xenia Twp.’s entire annual roads budget of $610,000.
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“Those grants should be coming down for the basics – repairing aging water lines, sewer lines, roads,” Reed said. “These projects, because they’re somebody’s pet project, those are getting priority, and it makes absolutely no sense.”
Greene County is not the only jurisdiction to get one of these grants. The National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program approved 22 of the 28 applications submitted for 2012, and will dole out $9.76 million. Miami County will receive an $80,000 grant for work on the Eldean Bridge in Troy, which carries some traffic and is adjacent to a recreational trail and park complex.
In the past seven years, the program has approved $62.2 million for more than 150 covered bridges nationwide, some that are still used by vehicles, some that are not.
Greene County engineer Bob Geyer said bridge expert John Smolen of Smolen Engineering sent in the grant application with his approval after load-testing the bridge. Geyer said he’s seen the $520,000 grant award listed on a government website, but said he hasn’t been officially notified.
“This is money set aside in a transportation bill by senators and congressmen, and if I didn’t get it, someone else would,” Geyer said. “This is all coming out of federal gas tax money that you pay at the pump every time you put a gallon of gas in your car.”
Brad Bieghler, who helped found the Tea Party-affiliated Beavercreek Liberty Group, doesn’t believe that’s a good reason.
“Our nation is $15 or 16 trillion in debt,” he said. “Just because somebody says, well gee, the money’s there, they’re giving the money away anyway, so let’s take advantage of it … that’s got to stop.”
Smolen called covered bridges “a piece of Americana.” In addition to sending in the Stevenson Road application, his company has bid on multiple projects in Greene County and designed the new covered bridge in Hueston Woods State Park in Preble County. Geyer said any contracts to work on the Stevenson bridge would come as the result of a competitive bid process.
The Stevenson Road Covered Bridge was built over Massie’s Creek in 1877. Wilson said it is Greene County’s last remaining bridge built by the famed Smith Bridge Company of Tipp City.
The Ohio Department of Transportation website calls historic bridges “a cultural resource as well as a work of art.” Nancy Campbell of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office said the Stevenson Bridge is not one of the state’s rare, highest priority bridges, but it is eligible for consideration for the National Register of Historic Places.
The bridge carried traffic until 2003, but was a problem for emergency vehicles, which had to detour around it. That year, the county built a $650,000 modern concrete bridge 100 feet downstream and moved Stevenson Road there, stranding the old bridge.
On a recent visit to the bridge, No Trespassing signs warned people away from the east entrance. The interior of the bridge was covered in graffiti, some of it sexually and racially profane, and beer bottles were strewn around one side.
Dorothy Pitzer, who has lived just uphill from the bridge for 40 years, said she misses driving through the bridge, but rarely sees much activity there now, either from tour groups or people causing trouble.
She likes the history of it, but was surprised that the restoration plan would replace almost all of the bridge — the floor system, roof and siding.
“I don’t know why they would do that, because nobody uses it,” Pitzer said. “It just sits over by itself. … I guess I can see both sides (of the issue).”
Because it doesn’t connect to anything, the Stevenson Road bridge reminds some of the “bridge to nowhere” — a 2005 proposal in Alaska that would have spent millions to connect two towns with tiny populations. That project was canceled amid public outcry.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent out a press release when the grant was approved this month, calling the bridge, “an important historical landmark to the community.” But a spokesman for Brown said the senator wasn’t involved in the process, saying his office was notified after the grant was approved.
Reed, a township trustee, understands that this Department of Transportation money is earmarked specifically for this type of project, but he hopes that will change.
“There are roads – not county roads, but local roads in nearby jurisdictions — that are so rough, you need four-wheel drive to get to people’s homes,” he said. “You can’t tell me that day-to-day travel projects aren’t more important than other frivolous projects.”
Geyer said the county will continue to work on its five covered bridges. Only the Ballard Road bridge is currently open to traffic, and it’s at the bottom of a dead-end road. He said funding has been in place to fix the Engle Mill Road Bridge for years, and he hopes to get that project out to bid in 2012.
The county and the Ohio Public Works Commission will split the $700,000 cost of replacing the Charleton Mill Covered Bridge, which closed last year. Geyer said that one was “too far gone” to rehab, but he’s going to put in a new wood truss capable of carrying legal load limits, while maintaining the look of an old covered bridge from the outside.
“I’d like to get all of the old covered bridges rehabilitated so they’re here for future generations,” Geyer said. “It’s history.”
The second National Covered Bridge Conference will be held in Dayton in June 2013.