Steve Mullen: A bridge that helped revive a city

April 28, 2010 10:20:00 AM

Steve Mullen - smullen@cdispatch.com

 

It''s too outdated to handle traffic. It has been derided as a bridge to nowhere -- or at least nowhere that anyone wants to go. Some wonder why we shouldn''t just knock it down, rather than fix it up. 

 

I''m not referring to the old Highway 82 bridge over the Tombigbee near the Riverwalk, which could one day become a pedestrian walkway and a recreational centerpiece for the city. I''m referring to the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- a renovated span over the Tennessee River that has literally transformed the city''s waterfront, much like the old river bridge could do for Columbus. 

 

The Walnut Street Bridge was built in 1891, and connects downtown Chattanooga with the city''s North Shore area. It closed to traffic in 1978, and slowly decayed over the next decade. Calls for its demolition were countered by citizens who wanted it renovated, and in 1993, after five years of work, it reopened as a pedestrian bridge.  

 

At 2,376 feet, it''s now one the world''s longest pedestrian bridges, and is the centerpiece of a revitalization of the city''s waterfront. The city located parks (including a Riverwalk), a museum and a city aquarium nearby -- and by all accounts, the areas on each side of the bridge are better for it. The North Shore, once a poverty-stricken, industrial area -- a place no one wanted to go -- is now being revitalized. Now, condos, restaurants and parkways greet visitors and residents on each end of the bridge. 

 

"It''s a jewel of the downtown landscape," Assistant City Engineer Dennis Malone recently said in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The bridge just reopened after a renovation that replaced its asphalt walkway with wooden planks, adding to the period feel of the bridge (at a cheaper cost than repaving). 

 

Of course, there are differences between Chattanooga and Columbus. Columbus'' bridge is much smaller, and would be renovated at a lower cost. And, the state Department of Transportation has committed to funding 80 percent of the estimated $2 million project -- a godsend that the handful of visionary bridge advocates in Chattanooga back in the 1980s surely could have only dreamed about. 

 

The Columbus project has stalled, however. The city of Columbus, which scored the state grant for the bridge, suddenly has cold feet about putting up its share of the matching funds, as does Lowndes County, which had agreed years ago to a half-and-half split. The city and county attempted to dump the whole thing in the Convention and Tourism Bureau''s lap, and the CVB reluctantly agreed to put up a third of the estimated $400,000 match.  

 

Also unlike Chattanooga, there is hardly a grassroots effort among a skeptical public to get the bridge going. Few seem to see it as a potential economic engine. Others, who look around at the state of the city''s streets and infrastructure, express pessimism in the city''s ability to maintain it. 

 

And the most important question: Will city and county leaders agree to a three-way split? The jury''s still out. No one from either city or county has spoken to CVB leaders since its decision to chip in funding a week ago. 

 

Maybe they''re too busy. The city and county have other things on their mind, recreation-wise. Plans for Tan Yard Park, the new soccer complex and city park in Burns Bottom, are being finalized. This Monday, supervisors and City Council members will be briefed on the complex, with a public meeting to follow that evening. 

 

Tan Yard Park will be a huge boost to downtown. The bridge project would complement the park and the Riverwalk, and maybe spawn improvements across the river. As long as we''re talking about three-way splits, our leaders might consider thinking of these projects as equal thirds, that combine to create a better future for Columbus.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.