City weighs options for Belmont Bridge replacement, calls for more public input

In 2008, the city decided that the 50-year-old Belmont Bridge needed to be replaced. Design options include a new, updated bridge, or an underpass. Photo: Jack Looney In 2008, the city decided that the 50-year-old Belmont Bridge needed to be replaced. Design options include a new, updated bridge, or an underpass. Photo: Jack Looney

It’s been seven months since city officials unveiled designs of two different replacement concepts for the Belmont Bridge, and the project’s start date is still nowhere in sight. A report presented by city staff last week revealed that building an underpass would cost nearly twice as much as the $15 million quoted by local design firm Barton Malow as the cost of a new bridge. Staff have been directed to develop yet another cost estimate, this time for an “enhanced bridge design,” but some people are concerned that the city is nowhere closer to choosing a design than it was in February.

“Unfortunately City Council doesn’t understand the underpass as well as it should,” said Belmont resident Brian Wimer. “But this isn’t even about an underpass. It’s about a process.”

Wimer, who organized a 2012 design contest that inspired the concept of a “no bridge” bridge, said there’s a disconnect between the city’s attempt at having civic involvement and its follow-through. He’s concerned that the cost estimates are biased, and residents are forming opinions based on inaccurate figures and assumptions.

“For example, we don’t need three train tracks,” Wimer said. “The trains change only there, right under the bridge, so why can’t they move that a little bit, so we only have to span two tracks? All of a sudden it costs less, is less intimidating, takes less time to build.”

The Belmont Bridge, which connects Belmont to the Downtown Mall by carrying Avon Street over a railroad line owned by CSX, was built in 1961. City Council decided in 2008 to replace the deteriorating bridge rather than repair the existing structure, and hired MMM Design to draw up rough plans for a new bridge. Belmont residents were unimpressed by the design, saying they needed more pedestrian and bicycle access. In 2012, the winning rendering in Wimer’s design contest proposed eliminating the bridge altogether, replacing it with an at-grade crossing, surrounded by pedestrian-friendly park-like features. If anything, the solution is less clear now.

Steve Powell, president of Buckingham Branch—which operates that stretch of the CSX-owned railroad—said an at-grade crossing is simply not an option, and replacing the bridge with an underpass is doable, but far more complicated.

“From a railroad perspective, I can’t think of any pros of an underpass,” Powell said. “The main reason is, instead of building a highway bridge, you essentially end up building a railroad bridge.”

If the project is funded by VDOT, Powell said, maintenance contracts between the city, state, and railroad company can get complicated. Plus, he said, a bridge can be rebuilt over the rail yard with minimal disruptions to the trains, but construction of an underpass would require a lot more cooperation. The most the railroad can shut down is 24 hours at a time, he said, and the construction nature of an underpass could even require Buckingham Branch to build a temporary train track going around the work site, something the area doesn’t have space for.

According to the report released by city
staff last week, replacing the bridge would cost $14.6 million—about the same amount the Virginia Department of Transportation has already promised for the project—and building an underpass would cost $27.3 million. At last week’s City Council meeting, residents spoke about connecting Belmont to Downtown in a way that is both safe and welcoming. Some referred to it as a tunnel, and emphasized the need for safe and easy pedestrian and bicycle access while also preserving local businesses near the bridge.

“We need to move forward with the notion of coming up with an enhanced bridge option that is truly reflective of the community’s desires, and also has a realistic price tag associated with it,” said City Councilor Dave Norris after Council reviewed the report presented by Neighborhood Development Director Jim Tolbert.

Councilor Dede Smith said she’s still interested in an at-grade pedestrian crossing. Councilor Kristin Szakos said she’s more inclined to concentrate efforts on building a bridge, and Kathy Galvin, an architect and member of the PLACE Design Task Force, said the logistics of the underpass were “mind-boggling,” but both agreed to not rule out the underpass entirely.

Local architect Jim Rounsevell, who was hired by the city to determine which features of the contest designs could be realistic options, is pro-underpass. He told Council he fears the public isn’t getting the facts it needs to form an informed opinion, and the cost analysis may not be entirely accurate.

“Here we are, seven months later, and yet relevant cost information has been precluded,” Rounsevell said at the meeting, adding that $1.4 million has already been spent on the project.

He said the cost projections were made based on an irrelevant bridge design because it was rejected by the public months ago. A bridge enhanced with features the neighborhood wants could increase the cost significantly, he said, and the argument that the underpass is unrealistically expensive would no longer be valid.

“Needless to say, because the public has never been properly engaged with either design, the public—and Council—is confused and misinformed,” he said.

Tolbert said he recognizes that “not everything is apples and apples at this point,” because the bridge design was farther along than the underpass. He said the next step is to sit down with designers and the PLACE Design Task Force and come up with a design for the enhanced bridge that Council asked for, then start weighing monetary options.

“What we’ve got to decide is how much cost does the city want to take on to enhance this bridge,” Tolbert said.