By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, W.Va. – The City of Welch held a public meeting yesterday evening to call on the support of its citizens for building a new bridge to alleviate consistent underpass troubles in the area.
“Everyone here knows the problem with the underpass, we’ve put up with it for years,” said Welch Mayor Harold McBride, speaking about nearly monthly occurrences of trucks and other larger vehicles wrecking or becoming stuck at the Lower McDowell Street underpass.
During severe flooding last year, what had been a minor nuisance for years suddenly became a shocking new reality: access to Welch Community Hospital was completely severed from 3/4ths of McDowell County’s population.
“We had to take nurses on ATVs down the railroad tracks and cross through Hemphill to get them to work and some of them were terrified of that,” said McBride. “Back in the day, if it flooded, the guys from the railroad would watch for trains and help people cross but they no longer do that.”
During last years flooding, the alternative route across Hobart Street was also inaccessible due to road slippage. Across town, Route 52 was also blocked at the Coney Island underpass.
“You cannot count on Hobart Street because it’s prone to slides and was inaccessible at that time,” said McBride. “We were in a fish bowl folks. If someone had suffered a heart attack, they would’ve been in bad shape. For 4 hours, we were absolutely in a fish bowl.”
The incident spurred many thoughts throughout City Hall, with a general consensus believing the bridge project could eliminate issues at both underpasses.
“Our solution to this is to build a bridge on McDowell Street,” said McBride. “Everyone says ‘God that’s a lot of money.’ So what? They build bridges all across the United States all the time, we’re no different. We deserve just as much as anyone else has.”
“The street is almost level with the tracks coming from Wyoming Street. You just have to get high enough to pass two stacked railroad cars like they run now,” continued McBride. ”We have from about where Ed Shepard’s station was all the way to the underpass to get our needed height, and we have even more room on the other side.”
To save on costs for the project, Mayor McBride proposed building two retaining walls that would be backfilled on each side of the railway bridge to create the needed height for the bridge.
“Across the tracks themselves, it would only take 100 feet of actual bridge construction. It’s economical, it can be done and it would also beautify Welch tremendously. Coming over the peak of the bridge, you could see all of Welch.”
Mayor McBride presented renderings of the bridge project created by local artist Tom Acosta.
“We have a great pumping system at the Lower McDowell Street underpass, but once the water crests over the wall, we’re pumping river into river,” said McBride. “The bridge eliminates that and at the same time, we think we could fix the problem at Coney Island as well.”
Years ago, the State attempted to address the Coney Island underpasses flooding issues by piping into the nearby river.
“It’s not so much the water coming down the mountain, but water coming back up the drains from the river now,” said McBride about the flooding issues. “They put in a pipe right out into the river. What we could do is extend that pipe 50 feet further down the river and that would create a similar effect to a jet pump like we use in wells. Water going by would create a suction effect and pull water through the drainage system.”
Debris will inevitably stop the drains up in the Coney Island underpass, but by bridging over McDowell Street, the pumping system used there could be repurposed to the other site.
“Then we’ve eliminated both of our issues,” said McBride.
Senator Rollan Roberts was very supportive of the project, insisting that if the State would approve the project, the Legislature would find the funding for it.
“The State looked it over and after a month, they wrote a letter saying it wasn’t really on the agenda right now,” said McBride. “Then we found out about another State project costing $4 million dollars to tear out the bridge near Flat Iron Pharmacy and the Tug Tower Parking Building. We found out after it started and I’m not sure they were even going to tell us about this.”
McBride explained that the State’s proposal was to tear out the old bridge there and replace it with a two-lane bridge while taking the other bridge near the McDowell Street underpass out.
“Mayor Swope built that bridge so the City of Welch owns it. You’re not tearing that bridge down because it’s the only way to get around if something is going on downtown,” said McBride. “The two lane bridge would also take up all the parking at Flat Iron. It makes no sense.”
The City of Welch met with the Head Engineer of the State of West Virginia to go over the project but has yet to hear any response. Governor Jim Justice has also been contacted but had not responded as of Tuesday’s meeting.
“In the meantime, Carol Miller called us and said she may be able to earmark money in an upcoming bill to help build this bridge. She said get all the support you can get, it will help when I try to do this,” said McBride. “That’s why we’re here today, so everyone would understand what they are supporting.”
Mayor McBride estimated the bridge project to cost between $6.5 to $8 million dollars, backed as a fairly accurate estimate by an engineer in attendance Tuesday.
“If they took the $4 million for the other project we don’t want, it would be a good start,” said McBride.
The City of Welch urges its citizens and residents across McDowell County to write a letter in support of the project and offered a template as follows:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing in support of the proposed bridge on McDowell Street in Welch, WV that will span over the railroad underpass and eliminate road closures during high-water events. Numerous times in the past several years, flood waters have closed this road for different lengths of time. When closed, there is no suitable way to reach the only hospital in the area for the majority of the county. This is a situation that will eventually cause the loss of life. Additionally, since the railroad has installed additional protective barriers on their overhead tracks, numerous vehicles have struck the structure, blocking the roadway. These barriers have also resulted in some larger transport vehicles being unable to pass under the railroad tracks, thereby preventing them from accessing the majority of the county.
The need for the bridge is two-fold. Most importantly, it will prevent the loss of life. Secondly, the bridge will permit the flow of commerce in to McDowell County from the ever-expanding Coalfields Expressway and Route 16.
Letters should be sent to Welch City Hall located at 88 Howard Street in Welch, WV. For more information, please call (304) 436-3113.