Obstacles confront ambitious bridge plans for area pedestrians and cyclists

When Brian Drake and his family moved to the Hollymead neighborhood on U.S. 29 in northern Albemarle County four years ago, they expected to find a community where it was safe to bike and walk.

But they found it was only safe to do so on the trails within their neighborhood.

“As a father of a 5- and 7-year-old, the traffic flow on 29 scares me to death,” Drake said. “There is no safe traffic interval or intersection between our home and the Hollymead Town Center.”

On the drawing table are plans for up to a dozen pedestrian-only bridges in Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville, but local officials say getting from concept to construction means navigating a daunting obstacle course.

“The primary obstacle to building bridges, trails or other features is legal permission, or ownership of the land, to do so, followed by funding limitations,” said Chris Gensic, Charlottesville’s trails planner.

Large bridges that carry pedestrians and cyclists also can be expensive.

One pedestrian-only crossing on U.S. 29 spans 85 feet over Emmet Street and connects the University of Virginia’s central and northern Grounds. The 18-foot-wide Goodwin Bridge was designed by Ammann & Whitney and was completed in early 2005 at a cost of $3.6 million. 
“The bridge has certainly provided easier and safer access across Emmet Street, particularly appreciated for events at [the John Paul Jones Arena],” said Mary Hughes, the university’s landscape architect. 
A second foot bridge is just a bit south down 29, in the area of UVa’s Bavaro Hall.

Albemarle’s Places29 Master Plan calls for bike and pedestrian-only bridges at U.S. 29 and the former Comdial building; at the southern terminus of Berkmar Drive; and at the southern end of the Hollymead Town Center.

Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning, said the Berkmar crossing to Fashion Square mall was estimated in 2010 to carry a price tag of $2.2 million.

“These are very difficult to estimate until location and design work is done,” he said.

Cilimberg said county planning staffers are considering asking the Board of Supervisors to designate two bike and pedestrian crossings as candidates for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s revenue-sharing program over the next five years.

Drake said he would like to see one of those crossings serve his community so his family can access commercial development less than a mile away without using a car.

“We would like to bike ride or walk from our home to other dining and shopping options at the Hollymead Town Center,” Drake said.

In Charlottesville, Gensic said, he sees his job as building bridges for pedestrians wherever he can. His major project for the past several years has been overseeing design and construction of a $1 million bridge to span the railroad tracks that bisect McIntire Park.

“We have the funds to construct the bridge, and are hoping it can be open for use by summer 2015, so that McIntire Park has this new connection and access point to go with the [Meadow Creek Parkway] interchange,” Gensic said.

But connectivity isn’t always about crossing highways and railroads. In Virginia’s Piedmont, there are many waterways to contend with. Gensic said he and his counterparts in Albemarle County also are planning two bridges to cross the Rivanna River.

“One [would be] between Darden [Towe] Park and Pen Park, and the other from Riverview to Pantops,” Gensic said. “We could not even begin to consider the Pantops bridge until recently when State Farm and the new Martha Jefferson Hospital gave the county some land on their side of the river.”

Gensic said planning is underway for both bridges, each of which will cost at least $2 million.

Gensic said small- to medium-sized pedestrian bridges cost $40,000 to $200,000 to purchase the materials, design the structure and install it.

“Our annual trail budget is around $80,000, so that sets the pace for moving forward, depending on how successful we are with grants or donations to help speed up the construction,” Gensic said.

Community groups such as the Rivanna Trails Foundation work with the city to improve bridges that might not be up to code, such as one at Quarry Park. Gensic worked out a solution where a pedestrian bridge used during construction of the Jefferson Park Avenue bridge would be reused.

“Once that project wrapped up, the city was able to buy the ‘used’ bridge at a discount for about $15,000,” Gensic said. “We paid to have abutments designed and built to fit the ground conditions at Quarry Park, then we had a crane come in and set the bridge on the abutments.”

Other bridge needs are on the minds of residents.

Gensic said there is a group that wants to build a pedestrian bridge over the CSX line near the Coal Tower to connect the Belmont neighborhood with Water Street Extended. Another group wants to build a pedestrian bridge to carry the Rivanna Trail across Ivy Road and the railroad tracks.

“Each property owner has their own plans, schedules and needs, and each negotiation is different, but until we get proper permission, we really cannot begin to plan for construction,” Gensic said.

Cyclists and pedestrians in Albemarle County’s urban ring are now expected to get a safer way to cross U.S. 29 by 2017. That’s when VDOT has said it hopes to complete an interchange to carry Rio Road over U.S. 29. However, they will share the bridge with vehicles.

“This crossing will help both pedestrians and cyclists cross safely at the intersection,” said Philip A. Shucet, the former VDOT commissioner overseeing implementation of the interchange, as well as an extension of Berkmar Drive and a widening of U.S. 29 from Polo Grounds Road to Hollymead Town Center.

Transportation officials also have budgeted $10 million for preliminary engineering on an interchange at Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29, but Shucet said that work is not expected until after the other projects are completed.