Main Street exit closes while the current bridge is replaced
- Main Street Bridge in downtown Lynchburg closes while it remains under construction until Thanksgiving 2018.
- Business owners expressed concern that the bridge’s closure will impact business.
For the next year, Liberty University students and Lynchburg residents heading downtown will be unable to take the Main Street exit from the Lynchburg Expressway (US Route 29 Business) while the Main Street Bridge is under construction.
Lee Newland, city engineer for the city of Lynchburg, said the city is expecting to finish the $6.8 million construction project that started Nov. 13 by mid-November of 2018. The current bridge is being demolished and replaced with a new bridge that is 18 inches higher and with longer acceleration and deceleration lanes onto the expressway.
“It has exceeded its functional life, and it needs to be replaced,” Newland said. “It’s also too low to the expressway that goes underneath it. It’s been hit several times by large oversized loads.”
To complete the project within the projected timeline, the city closed the exit to Main Street, which has caused some Lynchburg residents frustration, according to Newland.
“The public doesn’t like it being closed, obviously,” Newland said. “But by closing it, we were able to shorten the time period of the construction by six months. And then we’re projecting that we’re saving close to $2 million by doing it at one time instead of having to leave it open.”
Liberty students driving north on US Route 29 Business have multiple options for accessing downtown. Instead of taking the Main Street exit, they can take either the Kemper Street or Grace Street exits to 12th street, which intersects with Main Street.
Due to the closed exit, downtown business owners have expressed concern that they will lose business. Blake Gederberg, the owner of Speakertree, posted a video on the record shop’s Facebook page Nov. 13, informing customers that the bridge was closed and encouraging them to keep coming downtown despite the detour.
“Overall, I think that the general public wasn’t that aware that the bridge was closing for over a year,” Gederberg said in an interview with the Liberty Champion. “If it did affect business for the year to the point where businesses had to close … I would want to know that I did the most that I could.”
Gederberg said the reaction to the video, which garnered 15,000 views, was bigger than he expected. Other Lynchburg businesses expressing similar concerns shared his video.
Although Gederberg said he has seen complaints from Lynchburg residents on Facebook, he personally has not heard any complaints from Speakertree’s customers. In fact, Speakertree had their most successful weekend yet Nov. 24-26 after the bridge had closed.
“This weekend was the best weekend we’ve ever had, and that was a mixture of Small Business Saturday and Record Store Day,” Gederberg said. “None of our customers were saying anything like, ‘Oh, it was hard to get down here.’ Downtown seemed packed.”
But both Gederberg and Newland said that many people are still unaware of the closing. Gederberg said he expects Lynchburg residents will be frustrated with the closing if they do not know of the detours before going downtown.
However, he thinks that most locals will readjust to using any of the alternate routes. He noted that people can still use Rivermont Avenue, 5th Street and 12th street to access downtown.
“(Downtown business owners) are all in agreement that if you’re from Lynchburg, or you’ve lived here for a certain amount of time, there shouldn’t be too many excuses, because there’s multiple ways to get downtown,” Gederberg said. “It’s not like it’s an island, and there’s one bridge and that’s it.”
The alternate routes can still be confusing to Liberty students less familiar with the downtown area. Bethany Franco, a senior who lives on campus, said she goes downtown regularly for coffee and food, but the inconvenience of the route will impact how much she frequents those restaurants and coffee shops.
“If I’m going downtown to go to a restaurant, but I know there’s a more convenient restaurant that is easier to get to, then that’s definitely going to influence my decision,” Franco said.
Gederberg believes the closing will impact downtown tourism from people passing through the area more than local downtown traffic.
“If anything, it will hurt tourism and people from out of town who stumble across downtown,” Gederberg said. “But we live in a GPS age anyway. People can find their way around.”
However, Gederberg believes downtown Lynchburg will ultimately benefit from the new bridge, as it will provide a visual gateway to the city and contribute to the revitalization of downtown.
“The renderings for the new bridge look amazing, and it’s going to be way more welcoming,” Gederberg. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to say ‘downtown Lynchburg’ on the bridge, so it’s going to look like a gateway.”
Gederberg said most business owners he has talked to about the bridge replacement are looking at the long-term benefits of having a vibrant downtown area that draws more business.
“If we have a really strong downtown with good business, good shopping and good restaurants, it’s easier to recruit talent to live here,” Gederberg. “There’s a small (minority) that is frustrated more than they’re looking forward to it, but the majority of the business owners that I’ve talked to are just like, ‘It’s growing pains.’”
Stef Atkinson-Nemcovich, who owns The Conscious Mercantile, The Windblown Apothecary and Live Trendy or Die downtown, said many business owners have known these major construction projects were coming since 2015.
“As a business owner, I understand a growing a tax base needs better and fresher infrastructure,” Atkinson-Nemcovich said in a text message. “I hope customers who live locally or just enjoy Lynchburg understand that as well and continue to shop despite any minor inconveniences.”
Liberty student Vanessa Scoulos works downtown at the Conscious Mercantile, and she agreed with Atkinson-Nemcovich that the new bridge will contribute to the rejuvenation of downtown Lynchburg. Since she lives off campus, she said that the detour only adds about two minutes to her commute.
“It’s not super inconvenient,” Scoulos said. “If you’re coming from Liberty’s campus, there’s a quick detour that might throw you off at first. But anybody’s who’s downtown is just kind of like, ‘This is what it is.’”
Newland said the bridge should be finished before Thanksgiving of 2018 so the exit can reopen in time for the holiday season. By starting the project in the winter, the contracted construction firm English Construction will be able to move quickly through demolition that can be completed during inclement and colder weather.
“Bear with us through the construction,” Newland said. “It will look much nicer in the end, and everything will be back to normal. We’re trying to build a hundred-year bridge. We’re doing a few extra things to do it to try to extend the life of it so that we don’t have to bother the public later.”
Gederberg hopes that Lynchburg residents and students will keep coming downtown during the construction process and supporting local businesses like Speakertree.
“We’re still here, we’re still doing what we do, and this is something none of us as business owners can control,” Gederberg said. “But we can control how we communicate it and our efforts to get the word out there.”