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Virginia and Kentucky’s Beautiful Bridge to Nowhere

In a scenic but neglected area of Appalachia, a $100 million bridge built between two states remains unused five years after completion. Revised plans could bring traffic one day, but for now, it remains pristine.

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David Kidd


Virginia's yet-to-be-used bridge is the tallest in the state. (David Kidd)


Intended to bring much-needed industry and tourism to Appalachia, a state-of-the-art four-lane bridge was completed in 2015, connecting Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. To date, not a single vehicle has made the crossing from one state to the other. At least not legally.

After nearly five years of construction across difficult terrain, the $100 million span towers 250 feet over Grassy Creek, making the cast-in-place concrete bridge the tallest in Virginia. The American Segmental Bridge Institute bestowed it’s “Award of Excellence” in 2017, noting that “given the challenges, it’s amazing such a beautiful, tall, slender structure is the result.” Federal funding for the project dried up before construction began on the connecting roads, leaving the southern states with an award-winning bridge to nowhere. But work has recently resumed on newer, less-ambitious plans for the thoroughfare.

With a budget of $300 million, Virginia has revised plans that call for traffic coming off the four-lane bridge to funnel down to two lanes with climbing lanes as needed. Completion could come as soon as next year. For now, a miles-long graded roadbed of packed dirt and stone winds around and through the rocky Virginia mountainside, although not one piece of machinery is in sight. In the meantime, a few scattered orange traffic cones and strategically placed piles of gravel are intended to discourage motorists from illegally making the crossing. However, a well-worn lane around the barrier is proof that the obstacles are no match for motorists determined to get to the other side. Looking west, the pristine bridge reaches nearly 2,000 feet across the chasm into Kentucky, connecting to a finished but unused four-lane highway that gently rises, curving left and out of sight. 

A beautiful but unused bridge is not all the two states share at their common border. Interstate cooperation is in evidence just down the road at the nearby Breaks Interstate Park. Encompassing 4,500 mountainous acres and a five-mile-long gorge dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the South,” the park gets its name from the break in the mountains created by the Russell Fork River. Straddling the Virginia-Kentucky border, the park is one of the few in the country jointly maintained and operated by two different states. Opened in 1954, the interstate park features miles of hiking trails, overlooks, a lodge, pool and campgrounds. A short distance from the yet-unused highway span, plans are in place to build another interstate bridge, this one within the confines of the park. 

With funding in place, construction will soon begin on the new bridge. Instead of carrying four lanes of fast-moving cars and trucks, the proposed 725-foot span will be the longest swinging pedestrian bridge in North America. A $433,000 grant from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority will help pay for the bridge and also make other improvements to the park. Construction is set to begin in the fall with a planned opening sometime next year. It remains to be seen whether or not the swinging pedestrian bridge will officially be in use before the $100 million bridge over Grassy Creek.

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The roadbed for a future connecting highway has been cut through the rocky Virginia terrain.

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The bridge over Grassy Creek has been recognized for its construction methods and aesthetic appeal.

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The planned connector highway will lessen dependence on the existing network of winding two-lane roads.

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 Poor roads have contributed to the economic misfortunes of Appalachia.

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Kentucky has completed its connector road to the bridge.

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The completed bridge and highway are expected to be a boon to tourism in the region. 

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A local establishment didn’t survive long enough to see the bridge open to traffic.

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Construction will soon begin on the world’s longest swinging pedestrian bridge in Breaks Interstate Park. 

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Home to the “Grand Canyon of the South,” Breaks Interstate Park is jointly operated by Virginia and Kentucky.

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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