Even the fabled ghost might be frightened about the future of the Old Richardsville Road bridge.
Closed to vehicle traffic in March 2018 after a routine state inspection found structural deficiencies, the historic bowstring-style bridge that spans the Barren River hasn’t reopened as Warren County officials and residents living near it continue to wait on the state funding that is needed to make a repair possible.
Meanwhile, the concrete barriers blocking the route to the bridge have been decorated with graffiti while nearby trash mixes with overgrown weeds next to the cracking asphalt road.
Once a Warren County showpiece, the bridge is in danger of becoming an eyesore.
“I’m starting to get a little nervous,” said Neill Caudill, who lives on Old Richardsville Road and has watched the 19th century-vintage bridge deteriorate for nearly three years. “I’ve always loved that bridge. It’s a local icon, but now its future could possibly be in jeopardy.”
Caudill isn’t alone in her reverence for the bridge that is on the National Register of Historic Places and has for years attracted tourists and spawned stories about a ghostly presence with the power to push vehicles across.
“The historic and architectural value make the preservation of this bridge very important to most people in Warren County,” Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon said in a text message. “Saving that history is a priority to me personally.”
Buchanon and Warren Fiscal Court have hardly been idle since the bridge was first closed by the KYTC.
Last year, fiscal court approved spending $27,959 for American Engineers Inc. of Glasgow to develop structural design plans for repairing the one-lane bridge and also enlisted the help of an Iowa-based nonprofit called Workin’ Bridges that has expertise in bowstring bridges.
Warren County Public Works Director Josh Moore said the plan put together by AEI would restore the bridge to a better state than it was in previously.
Moore said in August 2019 that AEI was developing plans for a bridge with an eight-ton weight capacity, meaning it should comfortably handle normal vehicular traffic. Before it was closed, the bridge was limited to three tons.
A plan to not only restore but upgrade the bridge sounds good, but it comes with a price. Moore estimates the cost to restore the county-maintained bridge will be about $650,000, an amount the county would be hard-pressed to handle on its own.
A cheaper option – restoring the bridge for pedestrian traffic only – has been discussed but isn’t the preferred choice for residents.
The bridge’s closure doesn’t prevent Old Richardsville Road residents from gaining access to Ky. 185 (Richardsville Road), but it does require a detour.
“I realize the bridge isn’t necessarily critical in order to access the homes on this street,” said Ross Richey, a Bowling Green businessman who bought Ironwood Farm on Old Richardsville Road from the David Garvin family in 2015. “But we have to be vigilant about preserving our history.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of restoring the bridge so that you can drive across it.”
But, to date, such a restoration has been a bridge too far for the county.
That’s why Buchanon and others have been looking to Frankfort for help in getting the bridge back in working order.
Before the coronavirus pandemic stymied economic activity around the state, Moore was “pretty confident” some KYTC funding was on its way.
Today, he and others remain optimistic the 138-foot-long bridge can be made better than new.
Buchanon has had discussions with the state Historic Preservation Office and with Kentucky Transportation Secretary Jim Gray, trying to get this project funded.
“They understand the historic significance of the bridge and are supportive of saving it,” Buchanon said. “Secretary Gray is very favorable.”
Moore said the county isn’t necessarily counting on full funding of the repairs by the KYTC.
“Depending on what amount we receive from the state or federal governments, the county will consider making up the difference,” he said.
Another possible avenue is some private funding, which isn’t unprecedented in the bridge’s history.
The bridge was condemned in the 1980s, when it was being maintained by the state. Garvin, an entrepreneur who founded Camping World and owned Beech Bend Park and Raceway, bought it from the state and paid to restore it.
Garvin, who died in 2014, maintained the bridge for a couple of decades before turning it over to the county.
A similar private investment isn’t out of the question today, Richey said.
“We’ll have to see what the financial considerations are,” he said. “Everybody wants to save the bridge. Usually, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“This problem is not going to solve itself.”