Comments by Slate McDorman

I am writing this to share my thoughts on the controversy over the West Fork bridge. My goal is not to create panic but to encourage thought of the potential long-term costs associated with the decisions that will soon be made.

For those of you who do not know, my family’s land sits adjacent the western side of the bridge. Living so close, and with four generations whom have lived here, we know much about the bridge’s history and safety. Before this bridge, and even before highway 117, there was a covered bridge that served as the main crossing for a hundred years prior. The remaining pillars of this bridge lie in the water of the west fork of Little River between Hwy 117 and Camp Laney. Similar to the problem posed by the current bridge, the covered bridge lacked the capacity to handle increasing traffic. It collapsed as a result of a car and truck crossing over at the same time. A picture of the old crossing in its glory days hangs as a memento on Dessie’s far wall.

I find the issues surrounding this old bridge strikingly similar to the ones before us. Once again, we have a bridge on the west fork that was not designed to handle the amount of traffic crossing it. Once again, it is the same highway department coming to the rescue. We can only hope this generation of ingenious engineers is more successful than their predecessors have proven to be.

After the construction of the current bridge, around 1929 according to my grandmother, my forefathers and I have witnessed this stretch of highway develop into the hazardous roadway that it is today. In my lifetime, I have seen countless wrecks as a result of the blind curve on the east side of the bridge. Two years ago, my first Rescue Squad call involved an accident there. While approaching the curve from the east side of the bridge, a vehicle lost control on a patch of ice --crashing into oncoming traffic. Late one summer night, I witnessed a police chase ending with the criminal flipping his car as a result of not slowing down for the curve. In last October’s horrific accident, the force of the tractor-trailers colliding shook our home with the force of an earthquake. Everything in the house (including me) bounced from its proper place and rattled to a halt as my heart skipped a beat. Upon saying all this, I hope it is obvious that we McDormans have a deep interest in finding the best solution to the problem.

Yet, however important this issue is to my family and our community, the curve and the bridge are only a symptom of a larger issue. This being the continued unrestricted growth of Highway 117. This growth being due to a large part the time it saves from Atlanta to Northeast Alabama. I heard a scary rumor that fits in well in light of the proposed solution to the current problem. The rumor is that there is a master plan on the Georgia side to extend the highway of four lanes from Summerville to Menlo. After this addition, the plan is to place three lanes from Menlo to the state line. Then, the project will be picked up on the Alabama side and will run three lanes across and down to the west side of the mountain. Thus making a fast shortcut even faster.

Here, we have a puzzling mathematical twist of fate. If there were any truth to this rumor, it would explain why a 40-foot bridge is being proposed when each lane only needs to be 12 feet wide. Hence, at 12 feet there can eventually be three lanes for a total road width of 36 feet with four to spare. Things work out neatly if this rumor turns out to be accurate.

So what are options to solve our problem? To begin with, most of my life I’ve heard my family talk about a Fort Payne bypass that would relieve the 117 Atlanta traffic by moving this somewhere south of Fort Payne. In January, during the special town hall meeting to discuss the bridges, I asked if there is any truth to this project. I was informed about a plan that would run a major highway from somewhere north of Atlanta into Fort Payne and beyond to Memphis. However, this project is scheduled to take 20-25 years to put in place. I did not receive the impression that this Highway 35 project was of any immediate urgency. Yet, since there is already a long-term plan in place, the question has been asked, “Why spend money on this bridge project when it could be used to help make a true solution a reality?” Further, if we are spending so much time and effort to make Hwy 117 truck friendly and the route from Northern Georgia to Alabama more efficient, will this development make it unnecessary to expand 35? Is it Mentone’s destiny to become a sacrifice to progress for those who cannot wait for the Highway 35 expansion to become a reality?

Although the highway 35 project is the ideal long-term solution for our town, it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Different solutions discussed so far for our immediate bridge dilemma:

1. Adjust the Speed Limit
2. Erect a Stoplight (or multiple Stoplights)
3. Re-designate Highway 117 as Desoto Parkway and Ban Trucks
4. Move the Bridge in order to Straighten Out the Curve

First, let’s explore the simplest and least expensive solution. In our attempt to solve the Mentone dilemma of highway 117, we should consider lowering the speed limit to 35 mph inside town limits. In optimistic theory, if everyone drives at this reduced speed, the results of car accidents would be far less severe. Also, the lower speed limit will deter some of the commercial traffic.

Another practical option would be to (forgive my highway department blasphemy) place a stoplight or stoplights in order to slow traffic. This, in conjunction with lowering the speed limit, would put a serious dent in traffic accidents as well as reduce tractor-trailer traffic.

However, both of these ideas have been disregarded by our highway engineers --the same people who by their inaction let this situation develop into what it is today. Their reason against the stoplight was, “You don’t use traffic lights to control the speed limit. The results of doing so are not pretty.” I find this answer interesting since this is the same Highway Department that stated the way to control speeding on US 280 through Birmingham was to use traffic lights. Their reason against lowering the speed limit on 117, to my recollection, was that they had not done a traffic study. The fact that no study has been completed is bewildering given the increase in traffic, the rise in dangerous accidents and the fact the highway department is about to shell out several million dollars for a new bridge. We are, after all, only talking about a mile and half road.

Another solution that should be explored is extending the designation of Desoto parkway from Mentone to the state line. Once it is given this designation, truck traffic can be limited to local deliveries only. To this and to the majority of the ideas discussed at the town hall meeting, the Highway Department reply was “We don’t need to be restrictive with our highways. We must let other states know, Alabama is open for business”. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Is Mentone for sale to the interstate trucking industry?”

Last, and my personal least favorite idea, would be to expand the width of the bridge. If we take this approach, the existing bridge will still be standing, and a new bridge will be built beside it. There are two proposed plans as to where this new bridge will go. One has the new bridge upstream, which would significantly straighten the highway and eliminate the curve. The other proposes to place the new bridge downstream.

The reason this river crossing is a problem is not because of the local population. Normally, when roads are widened, it is to benefit the people living around it. Unfortunately, the expansion will mainly benefit menacing trucks that do not contribute a dime to our community. Our convenience won’t be improved, and the ramifications would change the life in Mentone as we know it. This looming development will eventually call for more land and the death of many small businesses that dwell next to the road. Revenue that tourists bring into the town will be lost, and our quaint town will become nothing more than a ghost town. This commercial truck route between northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama serves only as a short cut that shaves a minute amount of time off of truckers’ trips.

Is it Mentone’s destiny to become nothing more than a short cut for the masses? Why should we pay such a disproportional price for this so called ‘progress’ that will bring more traffic and less money to our town? We shouldn’t. It’s our job to stop this and protect our way of life.

In conclusion, let me say that the problems before us are not ones I see with any easy solutions. This is a battle between what we value as a community versus what commerce values as an economic savings. If Mentone is to retain the identity that we know and love, we and only we are the ones who care enough to see that it stays this way.

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