To get to Sperryville, as anyone giving directions for the last 30 years has told countless would-be visitors heading west, you make a left just after the four-lane highway ends.
Since that turn is now blocked, and will be most likely into July, by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) two- to three-month reconstruction of the U.S. 522 bridge over the Thornton River, a difficult and unhappy traffic situation has developed on the village’s few and narrow thoroughfares – for residents seeking quiet, children and dog-walkers seeking safe passage and through traffic seeking to make any sort of haste.
And for commercial truck drivers – especially those driving tractor-trailers along U.S. 522/211 between Culpeper, Madison and points north and east – it is a particularly sticky situation.
“People really don’t understand where truck drivers are coming from,” says Daniel Peer, a 37-year-old Winchester-based driver who is usually coming from Front Royal when he makes his weekly trip to deliver beer in Sperryville. “People in cars can pretty much go anywhere, except maybe the wrong way down a one-way street – but truck drivers, they gotta worry about bridge limits, low overpasses, alternate ways around routes that are changed or closed. It’s very stressful.”
In his two decades of commercial truck-driving, Peer says, he once found himself in an 18-wheeler facing a too-low railroad trestle marked only with a sign on the span itself – and had to back up a long enough distance that state troopers had to be called to direct traffic. It turned out that highway engineers had lowered the roadbed and the clearance was actually enough for most tractor-trailers to pass, but “the community did not want trucks coming through that bridge, so they didn’t change the sign.”
Peer called the Rappahannock News after, two weeks back, we suggested what residents of Main Street (and Water Street) in Sperryville had been thinking and writing in about: that truck drivers had trouble reading VDOT’s detour signs. VDOT’s signs warn drivers approaching Sperryville from Front Royal, Madison, Culpeper and Warrenton that they should just stay out of Sperryville.
That’s primarily because the detour routes traffic along Main Street, and where Main Street rejoins U.S. 211 just west of the closed bridge there’s a hairpin turn that many tractor-trailers won’t attempt (although Peer, whose delivery rig is 10 feet shorter than the average 18-wheeler and can make the turn, says “there’s no reason anyone should be hitting that guardrail if they’re watching their mirrors”).
U.S. 522, Peer says, is an increasingly popular north-south route for trucking companies with business in the burgeoning Culpeper metropolis and as far north as northern Pennsylvania – and if a driver headed south on 522 misses the orange VDOT detour signs at Massies Corner, Peer says, the next thing that driver sees is a sign at the closed bridge saying the detour just ahead will lead him to 522 south.
But at that turn, the aforementioned hairpin, there’s also a sign saying commercial trucks are prohibited on Main Street.
“At that point, unless you’re familiar with the area,” Peer says, “you’re in Never-Never Land. You know you’re heading into a small town, you know there’s another mountain ahead but you’re not sure if, around that next bend, there will be a place to turn around . . . it’s decision time.”
In any case, Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie C. Smith has detailed deputies into rotating one- and two-hour shifts in Sperryville, specifically to cite the drivers of any commercial trucks “who are on 522 anywhere north of 231 – where they just should not be.” This week on Monday, Smith said, deputies had written four tickets in the morning to tractor-trailer drivers. She said a truck that has business in Sperryville, however, is considered off the hook.
Meanwhile, Peer says, VDOT needs to make its detour signs more visible – and/or offer detour information that is commercial-truck specific.
VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter, on the phone this week, maintains that the current signs do specifically address commercial trucks. In the case of a southbound truck coming to the stop sign at U.S. 211 at Massies Corner, Hatter said, the signs advise a left turn to head east to Clevenger’s Corner, and then south on Route 229 to Culpeper. (Though heading south on Route 729 might be somewhat quicker, that’s not possible because the Route 729 bridge over Battle Run is also closed while VDOT replaces it, most likely through September.)
In any case, it’s a 30-mile-plus detour for a through truck, Peer says. Drivers paid by the mile might be happy to make it, but many of those have to justify variations of more than a few miles from planned routes – and many others are working under the clock.
“It hasn’t been very well planned, to be honest,” said Richie Burke, who is the county’s emergency services coordinator and also chief of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Company – a wide spot in the road south of Sperryville where, after several U-turning rigs damaged the unpaved grassy areas, Burke says he was forced to put up traffic cones to prevent turns.
“You know, at least 10 years back,” Burke says, “the supervisors knew this bridge would have to be replaced soon. And Pete Estes [the late former supervisors chair] had talked with me and with VDOT about the possibility of VDOT putting in a paved parking lot here, at the fire hall, so that trucks who couldn’t make that turn could just come down here and swing in there and turn around. And, the deal Pete was trying to make was, VDOT would just leave the parking lot when the detour was over.”
After Estes passed away, Burke says, “I never heard anything else about it.”
“This is just one of those unfortunate situations you find in small towns, where there is no good alternative,” says VDOT’s Hatter. “The alternative would have been phased construction [where only one lane of the bridge structure is closed at a time], but that would have been significantly more expensive [almost doubling the $1 million construction costs, according to VDOT’s estimates] and would have taken hugely longer to do.”
“It’s a problem, and an irritating one for the residents,” said County Administrator John McCarthy, referring to Sperryville citizens’ complaints about illicit big trucks – and just plain increased traffic on Main and Water streets. “But it is a temporary problem, and for the most part a low-speed problem, and one we have to live with.”
McCarthy said the county was expecting some electrical parts from a shipper, whose truck driver called ahead from Culpeper – at a point where he should have seen two sets of signs warning of the detour. He was told not to come through Sperryville, which he didn’t, but when he eventually arrived, the driver said of the warning signs in Culpeper: “Honestly, I didn’t even focus on them.”