Free Bridge

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Free Bridge. Built 1870, fifth bridge on this site. Earlier bridges washed away by floods.

Coordinates:Erioll world.svg.png 38°02′03″N 78°27′30″W / 38.0343°N 78.4584°W / 38.0343; -78.4584 Free Bridge is a seven-lane highway bridge spanning the Rivanna River, crossing the border from Charlottesville on the east to Albemarle County's Pantops neighborhood on the west. The road is part of U.S. Route 250 and Virginia State Route 20. Template:Asof, transportation planners in both communities continue to have differing opinions about the best way to proceed with ways to increase capacity of offer alternatives.


The Virginia legislature authorized a toll bridge over the Rivanna River in 1762 to provide another option for travelers who perviously had to cross the river by ferry or on Three Notched Road near the Woolen Mills. That toll bridge was never built and the bridge that eventually was constructed did not charge tolls, thus the moniker "Free Bridge."[1]

The name "free bridge" appears in several area businesses and groups, including Free Bridge Auto, which has moved from its original site immediately adjacent to the bridge, Free Bridge Chiropractic, and the Free Bridge Quintet, UVA's faculty jazz combo.

18th Century and early 19th Century

The Virginia State Legislature had approved of a toll being built over the river around 1762, this however never happened. Most of the people that would cross the bridge did it either by "Small ferry, on foot, or along Three Notched Roads at a site called Secretary's Ford, near woolen mills when the River was low enough"[2]

20th Century

State highway officials announced a plan in 1933 to build a new bridge to cross the Rivanna River several feet to the north that would route a highway around the center of Charlottesville along Long Street rather than through it. Citizens and merchants protested the plan asked for the bridge to be built along the existing right of way and into the city. [3] A delegation of officials including City Manager Seth Burnley met with state officials on August 12 of that year to make their case. [4] State Highway Commissioner Henry G. Shirley told the group that federal oversight was needed. [5]

1993 redesign

Planning got underway in the early 1990's. [6] The bridge was redesigned and widened from four to seven lanes in 1993 by then-UVA professors Ellen Dunham-Jones and Jude LeBlanc. Dunham-Jones said that they attempted to create a "unique gateway into Charlottesville, not just a standard-issue widened stretch of highway happening to cross a waterway." The bridge has been acclaimed by the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects, being honored as an instance of excellence in design. A local photographer has described the structure as "an elegant, simply designed bridge."[1]

The bridge as constructed does not include a fishing platform and banner poles that were part of the original 1993 design.[1]

21st Century

Congestion relief project

In the mid 2010's, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission received a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to study potential ways to increase road capacity across the Rivanna River. The Eco-Logical Pilot Project - Free Bridge Congestion Relief did not result in a specific project but the alternatives discussed at that time remain potential solutions going forward.

Work got underway in September 2013 with the first of seven meetings facilitated by the Institute for Environmental Negotiation. Stakeholders proposed and evaluated potential designs according to a variety of different metrics.

Statement of Problem for the project

"The US 250 link across the Rivanna River, known locally as Free Bridge, a key connection for local and regional traffic, but continued use of this link will result in more congestion and economic development and public safety issues that must be addressed. Regarding congestion, there are currently 53,000 vehicles per day on Free Bridge which has resulted in an overall level of service of F. Modeling has shown that by 2040, approximately 70,000 vehicles a day will be using the bridge, making the already failing level of service 25% worse.

"Over the years, several transportation solutions have been proposed for the corridor, but none have advanced past the exploratory stages. This is due to a myriad of factors, including the project location spanning two jurisdictions, the political realities of building new road projects, and the unique social, cultural and environmental constraints present when trying to build new facilities in an already developed environment. The previous studies have included Albemarle County Pantops Master Plan, the Eastern Connector Study Report and TJPDC’s Eastern Planning Initiative. [7]


Alternative # Name Cost (Millions) Congestion Relief Ecological Impact Score Feasibility Recommended Actions
I Intersection Improvements at 20 and High Street $7.4 Low Low High Recommended for further analyses and construction
F Increased Lane Capacity on Free Bridge $20.5 Moderate Low Moderate Recommended for further analyses and construction
B Rivanna River Trail $9.3 Low High Moderate Valuable project with only negligible impact on congestion
G South Pantops Drive Connector Bridge $27.0 Low Moderate High Group split on recommending this at this time
A2 High Street Jug Handle $9.0 Low Low High Not recommended for further consideration or analyses
D2 Rivanna River Parkway $68.0 Moderate Moderate Moderate Not recommended for further consideration or analyses
A1 US 250 Overpass $141.2 High Low Low Not recommended for further consideration or analyses




  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Web. Second glance: Free Bridge a design delight, David McNair, The Hook, Better Publications LLC, December 14, 2011, retrieved December 22, 2011. Print. December 15, 2011 , 1050, .
  2. Web. Second glance: Free bridge a design delight, Thursday December 15th 2011
  3. Web. Citizens Protest Shirley Plan for Rivanna Bridge, Staff Reports, Daily Progress Digitized Microfilm, Lindsay family, August 8, 1933, retrieved August 8, 2016 from University of Virginia Library. Print. August 8, 1933 page 1.
  4. Web. Shirley Will Hear Group About Road, Daily Progress Digitized Microfilm, Lindsay family, August 11, 1933, retrieved May 5, 2019. Print. August 11, 1933 page 1.
  5. Web. Shirley Says U.S. Must Decide About Rivanna Bridge Location, Daily Progress Digitized Microfilm, Lindsay family, August 14, 1933, retrieved May 5, 2019. Print. August 14, 1933 page 3.
  6. Web. Charlottesville City Council meeting minutes, .pdf, Council Chambers, City of Charlottesville, June 17, 1991.. . Also available in older archive.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Web. [ Eco-Logical Free Bridge Area Congestion Relief Project Alternatives Summary], Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, Report, Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, retrieved May 5, 2019.