A Bridge Too Far: Stimulus funds to destroy city landmark

citydesk_icnThe current economic downturn and an infusion of $14 million from the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus bill) passed by congress earlier this spring have brought back to life a controversial city project many believe should never be revived.

Since 1988, access to the 19th Street Bridge over the Ostahanoc River has required drivers to make four ninety-degree turns, two entering and two exiting the span. This odd and inconvenient traffic pattern was necessitated when repair work on the original bridge caused it to collapse into the river. Rather than trying to rebuild the bridge in its original location, the city decided to save money by redesigning and reinforcing the parallel pedestrian bridge to handle vehicular traffic on one of the busiest roads in the county. Since the streets leading to the bridge could not be easily re-routed due to a thriving commercial district in the area, 19th Street was turned and extended parallel to the river, where it joined the reconfigured bridge some 15 yards to the north.

In the first few months after the ‘new’ bridge was opened, traffic mishaps were frequent. But drivers eventually acclimated themselves to the demands of negotiating the four square corners. From 1992-2008, in spite of a continual increase in traffic volume, the incidence of traffic accidents around the 19th Street Bridge area was consistently below levels recorded prior to 1988, because of lowered speeds necessitated by the sharp turns. Instead of an habitual annoyance, the zig-zag course of the bridge became one of the city’s endearing quirks, and veteran commuters tend to smirk at out-of-towners who slam on their brakes as they head for the river more than they rail against the absurdity of the span’s design.

However, one of the projects green-lighted by the city due to the influx of cash from the federal government is replacement of the 19th Street Bridge at its original location, and the restoration of the current vehicular bridge as a pedestrian crossing. This proposal has been lying dormant since 1996, when Mayor Gerald Shockley tabled the project after reviewing the data and recommendations from the city Department of Transportation. But desperate to have ‘shovel ready’ plans in place to avail themselves of the stimulus windfall, this past February Mayor Maribeth Cosgrove and the City Council submitted for funding the file of every uncompleted city construction project since 1961. Included in that cabinet-full of previously unfunded mandates was the proposal to restore the original location of the 19th Street Bridge, an act sure to find little support in 2009 from anyone outside city government or the local construction trade.

Ironically, the economic downturn that made federal funds available for the now-unpopular bridge restoration project has also rendered the relocation completely unnecessary. The commercial district that exploded along 19th Street near the river in the late 20th Century is now a virtual ghost-district of abandoned buildings and shuttered shops. It would now take far less money to straighten the road to meet the existing bridge, and add a new pedestrian bridge, than to remove the 19th Street extension and restore a vehicular bridge at its original pre-1988 location. But this alternate street-straightening proposal is currently no more than theory, perhaps 24 to 36 months from being ‘shovel ready,’ in addition to there being little public support for the loss of 19th Street’s unique ‘four corners’ curves. Sensing the public mood, Mayor Cosgrove has announced that a plan is currently being devised to use the federal funds for repairs to the existing bridge. Unfortunately, the current economic collapse cannot last forever, and a now-beloved city landmark stands to fall at the cruel hands of a general economic recovery.
– David Andrews

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