Feedback on bridges favors functionality over history

While many residents who provided feedback suggested replicating some of the features that make the current bridge historic, like the decorative railing and ornamental light standards, almost all favored a complete reconstruction over rehabilitation of the old structure if it means a cheaper, quicker project. (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)

While many residents who provided feedback suggested replicating some of the features that make the current bridge historic, like the decorative railing and ornamental light standards, almost all favored a complete reconstruction over rehabilitation of the old structure if it means a cheaper, quicker project. (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)

If last week’s public input open house is any indication, Watertown residents as a whole place more value in a safe, efficient and functional bridge than they do in preserving the historic nature of the current one on County Road 10 that spans the Crow River.

That is the general consensus among feedback gathered by the Watertown City Council last week as residents were encouraged to stop by city hall and share their thoughts on the bridge replacement process. Because the bridge, built in 1939, qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places, the city was required by state law to seek public input on potential impacts to the structure as they relate to the proposed project that would replace the bridge in the spring of 2014.

“The loudest thing we’ve heard from this entire process is that safety and function are two of the primary concerns from a public perspective,” Watertown City Administrator Luke Fischer said. “The historic nature of the bridge has been a second tier concern for a lot of people.”

The city has already submitted a proposal to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would include a complete replacement of the structure, but the State Historical Preservation Office still could decide that the bridge, because of it’s historical nature, needs to be rehabilitated instead of replaced. Feedback collected at last week’s meeting is being sent to the SHPO to help them make that determination.

About 15 residents and business owners attended the open house, 10 of whom had returned the city’s official questionnaire as of Monday morning. All 10 of those people acknowledged that the bridge was in need of repair or replacement, and nine of those 10 respondents said they would support a bridge project even if it meant a loss of the characteristics that make the current bridge historic. Eight of the 10 respondents said they would not support a bridge project that maintained the historic elements but didn’t alleviate some of the deficiencies.

“Replacing this bridge is critical to the city of Watertown and should be done as efficiently, safely and within as short a time frame as possible,” one resident wrote on the form. “The businesses and the citizens will be inconvenienced with the down time, and it is needed quickly to minimize the economic impact.”

Another resident questioned the historic nature of the bridge in general, describing it as “deteriorating ugly blocks of concrete which are old, but not historical”.

“What silliness,” the person wrote. “Just because something is old doesn’t make it historically valuable.”

The current bridge was built in 1939 as part of the New Deal, and qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places for a number of reasons, including its basic design concept, as well as the decorative railings and ornamental lighting. While most respondents favored total replacement of the bridge, which is expected to be quicker and cheaper, many did indicate that it would be nice to replicate some of the railings and light fixtures on a new bridge.

Watertown resident Owen Seck, who remembers attending a street dance on the bridge when it first opened in 1939, said he feels having a functional bridge was more important than preserving the historic elements. Many residents at last week’s meeting agreed, indicating that a bridge that was both wider (to address traffic congestion) and higher (to be above the 100-year flood plain) would be ideal.

Charlotte Johnson, who, as Watertown’s mayor, hopes to have the project completed as quickly as possible and in the most cost-effective manner, has a unique perspective on the issue in that she also is the president of the Watertown Area Historical Society.

“The members (of the historical society) have all come out and said that it is more important to have a safe bridge than try to preserve something that is no longer accommodating present traffic and is a safety concern,” Johnson said.

The existing conditions of the current bridge call for replacement or repair for a number of reasons. The bridge is classified as structurally deficient in consideration of its structural condition, geometry and traffic considerations. It was constructed on spread footings, which are endangered by scour during high flows.

In addition, the elevation of the bottom of the bridge deck is more than one foot lower than the 100-year flood elevation, and the bridge must close when water is 2 feet from the bottom of the bridge due to its structural condition.

The bridge currently has two 12-foot driving lanes with 3-foot shoulders and a 6-foot walkway, which does not meet State Aid roadway design standards for safety and capacity.

Contact Matt Bunke at matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com

 
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