Controversy veers: Belmont Bridge fence could pose bike hazard

Controversy has erupted again on the Belmont Bridge, and this time it's bicyclists who might be getting the short end of the sidewalk, as a new fence– designed as a safety boon– could be creating a safety hazard.

"That pushes the bicyclists further out out into the traffic," says safety expert Dean Sicking. "That would be a concern for me."

Sicking explains how the fence, erected in late May to keep pedestrians from walking over the Bridge's crumbling eastern sidewalk, has been located so close to the vehicular lanes that the natural tendency of a passing bicyclist is to steer away from such an obstacle– and out into motorized traffic.

Belmont Bridge has two vehicular lanes on its eastern side but no lanes dedicated exclusively to bicycles. And that's why Sicking, who directs the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska, isn't sure the fence was a good idea.

"The concern I would have," says Sicking, "is that it might make a biker shy away from the fence and be more likely to be hit by a car."

Researcher Sicking provided safety tips in the wake of a group of fences built inside tunnels in Boston's "Big Dig." There, the fences were blamed for deaths and grisly, dismembering injuries that might not have happened with horizontally-oriented bars.

He says the Belmont Bridge fence might not dismember or decapitate a bicyclist thanks to fairly close spacing of the vertical bars, but he does note that vertical bars are far less forgiving than horizontals.

"If you get a hand or a foot in there," says Sicking, "it's gonna break."

It's not just academics who find an inches-from-the-road fence a potential danger.

"You want to get away from it," says avid bicyclist Gerry Newman, "because getting your handlebar caught on it is scary."

Asked what safety testing was conducted prior to the installation of the fence, City engineer Tony Edwards said that he would look into the issue and pushed the question back on a reporter.

"Did you understand that some testing needed to be done?" asked Edwards.

Virginia Department of Transportation spokesperson Lou Hatter says he knows of no road standards that have been violated by the fence erection, but according to Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, a newspaper article outlining potential dangers could be used by a plaintiff's attorney to overcome the government's built-in protection against liability.

"Your article," says Heilberg, "will become part of the case to overcome sovereign immunity."

Mayor Dave Norris was on record opposing the fence even before the potential danger of the fence became known.

"I'd like to see the fence taken down, the sidewalk repaired and opened to pedestrians," says Norris, who– along with Holly Edwards– was one of two anti-fence votes in an April 4 City Council vote. (Councilors Kristin Szakos, Satyendra Huja, and David Brown voted in favor of the $14,530 fence.)

Independent City Council candidate Bob Fenwick, in comments for a prior Hook story, urged Council to purchase some plywood forms, a few dozen bags of quick-setting concrete, and just fix the sidewalk. Democrat James Halfaday has publicly concurred with the repair-the-bridge concept.

Researcher Sicking says that whatever happens, he just hopes that no Charlottesville bicyclist veers away from the fence– and into motorized traffic.

"The bicyclist," says Sicking, "always loses in that interaction."

This story is a part of the Which way for Belmont Bridge? special.
Read more on: belmont bridge


A lawsuit in the making. The city would be well advised to take down the fence ASAP - taxpayer money is at risk if a suit develops from this foolish idea.

Potential lawsuits were brought up by many on this blog. I guess they will be used as evidence when someone gets run over and the taxpayers that tolerate these stupid decisions can pay for what they let occur.

There is nothing wrong with that sidewalk that couldn't be patched in one day and twenty bags of cement.

They should take down the fence, patch the sidewalk and put a post at each end prohibiting bicycle traffic on the uneven surface.

People walked on the uneven bricks of the downtown mall for years, I think they can navigate a bumpy sidewalk.

No wonder the government is broke.

At least someone will get to buy a used fence at 10 cents on the dollar at the surplus auction.

Mr Norris TEAR DOWN THAT WALL !!!! Yes take it down before it's ripped down by a large vehicle hooking onto it . Surprised it is still there .Two guys with a grinder, water, sand ,small mixer and about a week would do a nice job of repair and spiffing up the walkway for walkers,bikes,baby strollers ,skate boarders etc. The horizontal bars are a slightly less dumb solution to the currant fence design if the bars could suspend themselves . There needs to be some vertical bars to hold up the horizontal , therefore, it's "six and six" on that score .

I once almost ran into a stop sign and hurt myself. The obvious conclusion? REMOVE ALL STOP SIGNS!!!

Install Prohibit bicycle signs on each end of the bridge. Liability has been shifted.

jeezlouise, there is a simpler solution.

Ban motorized vehicles and only allow bicycles on the bridge. :)

I brought this up the day they started the fence construction, thanks for the acknowledgement

Thomas K --- Same comment came from here also when i opined " Surprising solution to a safety hazard ,erect a more dangerous hazard " ---- Experts have now chimed in which gives the senior government officer of the town justification to have it torn down and some routine concrete repair . Patching and retrouling this sidewalk is a piece of cake and could be done very cheapely , much less expense than the cost of the metal fence .

Jim Tolbert of the City's Department of Neighborhood Services, told Council that it would cost over $300K to fix the sidewalk. Did anybody on Council ask to have an RFP to see what the private sector would actually charge? I would not be surprised if it is less than $100K.

Make the city counsel members - who defied the majority opinion of their constituents and voted to waste our money on this fence - personally pay to have it removed and to have the cement patched.

according to my sister who has a master's in urban planning from UVA.....a quick patch job would not be as effective as opined. it could hurt structural integrity of the side walk. seems like a better idea than that stupid fence though.

You don't have to ride to the right if safety conditions warrant otherwise. Just take the lane. I recommend center to left tire track -- don't give people the chance to think they can 'shoot the gap'.

If you don't want to do that, go down under the tunnel to Water at 4th St (?), or heck, just walk over the tracks where the fence ends at Lexus/Nexus.

You can't legally cross the tracks on foot. The railrod cops would have a field day!

Given the number I see who cross regularly down there, I'm guessing the 'railrod' cops don't really care. But you're right on principle.

Not patching the sidewalk would result in more structural damage than patching it . Patching would tend to slow the overall deteriation from weathering . It needs the little cracks and holes sealed and a thin resurface hand trouled out. This is an easy procedure using ready mix delivered on site after the existing concrete is cleaned up a bit . A couple of guys with small hand grinders and Eastwing chipping hammers could clean it up and troul out the new mix .Take about a week and easily less than $10,00.00 total cost .

@ jpa resident, how would a degree in urban planning qualify your sister to make pronouncements about structures? It certainly wasn't a part of her training unless she started with a degree in engineering.

Patching concrete is cheap, easy, and far better than leaving the reinforcing steel exposed to weathering. Building the fence instead was just plain stupid.

Here\'s a thought for all you folks who think that you can fix this problem:

Put together a set of engineering drawings appropriate for the work, put you Professional Engineers seal on it, work up a bid and work plan with a qualified contractor and submit an unsolicited bid to the City under the requirements of The Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (read all about it here:

If you can REALLY do it SOO inexpensively (and still at least break even), I\'m sure the City will take you up on your proposal.

I\'m waiting...

A person would be dealing with the loonies that put the dangerous fence up are you one of them ? Whoever put their engineers seal on it and whoever accepted the proposal are jokes .If i recall correctly there was an estimate of $300,000.00 to do the straight forward concrete simple patch job . Sounds like your quoted reference and estimated cost vs actual cost allows for 96% graft . It is a widespread problem in North America overcharging governments/taxpayers by cosy political and business relationships . State and municipal adms need to have in house work force to give such cozy relationships competition . Strange as it sounds but there needs to be a mixed force approach to impede unions from total control of government work force and to help prevent contractor rip off.


I don't think you got the gist of Put up's comment. Submit a proposal! The City is saying it'll cost $300k. You say it's $10k. Put your money where your mouth is. Submit a proposal (for $10k?)!

@ an engineer I don't think you got the gist of what i am saying . The present solution is more dangerous than the danger it is supposed to protect people from . Leaving the concrete unpatched will allow it to attrit as time passes . The $300 cost is totally outrageous , just an extreme rip off . As an engineer you must agree with those points don't you ? In any event there has to be a decision to remove the fence before anyone would be interested in patching the concrete walk .

edit --$300k


So submit a proposal! Quit whining like a little girl! If you're not going to do something to actually resolve the issue and instead just whine and pout, go do it in a corner!

And as an engineer, I feel comfortable telling you that your $10k is bovine excrement.

More political figures, including Mayor Dave Norris, appear on the locally-produced Charlottesville politics interview program Politics Matters with host Jan Paynter:

@ Engineer .... Then what is your professional opinion on the safety of the fence ? And your engineers opinion of the the effect of weathering on the unpatched concrete ?

Why can't they just pour asphalt over the entire tsiewalk and add more as needed until the new bridge arrives in a decade? They patch cement highways and the Woodrow Wilson bridge (in DC) did that for 20 years before they built a new one. This is a sidewalk for chrissake.. are people in c-ville THAT fat?

Just look at the roads you drive on with your cars. They fill potholes in cement roads all day everyday and semis drive over them.

Absolutely Bill -----All that is happening here is An Engineer or 2 are caught up in their own " bovine excrement " .

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why things like bridges and buildings are design by engineers and not toss pots like bill & Frank!

@ An Engineer --- So why all the reluctance in giving your engineer's opinion on the safety of the FENCE and the decision not to repair and protect the concrete walkway from acellerated weather damage ?

Please, let's don't further the attacks on comment or article writers over this issue. There is merit to the discussion but there is little to vicious (or even almost-vicious) attacks.

If the city will remove this fence, I personally will build a recycled plastic boardwalk above the rough concrete in order that walkers and bicyclists can cross the Belmont Bridge on both sides. Today, with our oil dependency, with our greenhouse emissions, with our need to fight in the Middle East around petroleum, with our obesity crisis, with our growing automobile congestion, we should never be doing anything which makes biking and walking more difficult for our citizens.

All Charlottesville would need to furnish is electricity for my saw and I will furnish all labor and all materials. If I can't find a building donor for the materials, I'll dip into my checkbook. Boardwalks cover vast amounts of many of our national parks, especially Yellowstone, where there is much more foot traffic and much worse weather. A boardwalk would certainly hold up through the planned replacement of the Belmont Bridge.

randy salzman

This is a really silly article, and I think the assessment by the "safety expert" is rather strange. Bicyclists shouldn't be riding at the very far right on that bridge in the first place. Instead, they should be out in the middle of the traffic lane all the way over it. That is legal and warranted in this case because of the safety hazards near the side. It's also perfectly safe to do so, as long as you don't just swerve into the traffic stream without warning. If you pick a line that is out away from the curb, and stick to it, then it's actually safer to ride in the main lane in situations like this. The speed limit is low there, which means that any delay to motorists who are not drastically speeding associated with doing that is minimal.

This article seems to be written with the unspoken false assumption that bicyclists should always stay as far right as possible and never delay motorists even a few seconds.