Montreat's bridge to nowhere gets a testy walk-through
Moments after Montreat's new town administrator was sworn in March 9, he had a front-row seat to the latest bitter exchange between the mayor and a commissioner, a common occurrence in recent months, over the Texas Road bridge.
Alex Carmichael, who began work on Feb. 20, was sworn in by town clerk Angela Murphy. He thanked the board for entrusting him with the position and introduced the board to his family. Then the subject of whether to build a replacement bridge on Texas Road came up.
The existing bridge was closed in 2008 after being deemed structurally unsound because of decaying wood. Last week the town council was to consider whether to authorize the mayor and town administrator to sign a letter asking the state to convert the bridge to a pedestrian-only bridge. Commissioner Mary Standaert expressed several concerns about bridge information she contended was not being shared freely with the board.
A replacement for the bridge was added to the town’s capital improvement plan in 2009. The next year the town was accepted into the Municipal Bridge Program, a collaborative effort between the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The bridge program uses funds from the two entities to cover 80 percent of the costs associated with construction. The town is responsible for the other 20 percent.
As plans for the bridge became available in 2014, members of the community disagreed strongly with the aesthetics of the proposed project.
The town, having been accepted into the program four years earlier, proceeded with the project until commissioners Kitty Fouche and Bill Gilliland were elected in November 2015. That election left vacant the council seat of Tim Helms, who as a commissioner ran unopposed for mayor. With Ann Vinson and Standaert supporting the construction of a bridge on Texas Road, Gilliland, Fouche and Helms in a tie-breaking vote appointed Kent Otto to the board.
Last March the board voted 3-2 (Vinson and Standaert dissenting) to suspend the Texas Road bridge project indefinitely, following a motion by Otto, who said he was "still trying to sort through all of the facts."
Helms appointed a citizen committee, with Otto representing commissioners.
Last May the committee recommended the town immediately obtain a professional traffic study while also recommending the town not proceed with plans to build a bridge at the site. The committee also suggested the town "take all necessary steps to avoid repayment of funds previously provided for the bridge project" through the bridge program.
On Aug. 11, with only three commissioners present and without knowing how much the town would have to reimburse state and federal agencies for money already spent on the project, Fouche motioned that the town not build a vehicular bridge on Texas Road. Standaert successfully argued that the motion violated the board's rules of procedure and asked that it be added to the following month's agenda. Later that month, the town learned it would be responsible to repay funds if it chose not to move forward with the bridge. Fouche's motion motion was rescinded by the board later that month in a special meeting.
"The statement that we don't need a vehicular bridge is not following what the (bridge) committee itself recommended," Standaert said at the March 9 commissioners' meeting. About 15 minutes later, as Standaert continued to make the case to consider the balance between fiscal responsibility and future traffic needs, Helms told her "wrap it up, you're pushing the time limit."
The discussion digressed when Standaert inquired when time limits had been placed on council members. Moments later Vinson called the question. The board voted 3-2 to ask the state transportation department that the existing bridge be converted to a pedestrian bridge. Later, after Standaert attempted to clarify the role of the mayor in Montreat, Helms told her "you're through for the night."
Before the meeting ended, the mayor apologized to Standaert.