City engineers have whittled down the options for the Belmont Bridge replacement project to two resolutions for Charlottesville’s City Council to consider Monday night: endorsement of a $17.2 million design less than half the length of the current span, or scrapping all four concepts now in the running and return to the drawing board.
The engineers are recommending the shorter replacement — 205 feet instead of the 440-foot span now standing — as the most responsible use of public funds available to the city, according to a staff report.
“We believe this option addresses the community desires for an enhanced bridge,” the report states. “We also believe this option is cost effective and provides an improved connection to neighborhoods on both sides.”
Councilor Kathy Galvin proposed the second resolution, which calls for new architects to step in with orders to consider the advice of city residents when drawing up a re-imagined span. She acknowledged this would mean further delaying work on the bridge, which has needed either to be extensively repaired or replaced since inspectors discovered crumbling concrete and rust eating through steel beams in 2003.
The process that produced the current designs pitted residents against each other in competition for their favorite design when they should have joined together for the good of the city, Galvin has said. Engineers solicited ideas from throughout the community, but the design process failed to be a true collaborative effort, she said.
“A bridge should connect the community,” she said previously. “It shouldn’t be a wall that divides.”
But Councilor Kristin Szakos argues that such a move would place the project too far back in the process.
“I think it adds both cost and time to the project,” she said.
Instead, Szakos said she wants to bring in another design firm to add an aesthetic flair to the existing bridge replacement options and to make them more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists.
In all, three bridge designs and an underpass are up for council consideration, and estimated project costs run from $15.7 million to $27.4 million.
The low estimate is for a straight bridge replacement plan from Norfolk-based MMM Design, but it was dismissed by the community as less than imaginative, leading to the other designs.
Next in line is the shorter bridge version, drawn up by MMM Design and dubbed the “enhanced” replacement, which city engineers say will offer the most space for pedestrians and bicyclists. It is the design city staff recommends to council.
There is also a design for a bridge that is also shorter than the current span in place but calls for a steel arch to give it the appearance of a classic bridge. The plan, also conceived by MMM Design, carries a cost estimate of $18.8 million.
The underpass, conceived by the firm Siteworks Studios and architect Jim Rounsevell, does away with the Belmont Bridge and instead runs Avon Street beneath three new spans carrying the railroad tracks and two other streets. This design comes with the priciest estimate, $27.4 million.
Because the underpass design includes very little space to walk or bike through, blueprints call for a pedestrian bridge that leads to the nTelos Wireless Pavilion. This addition carries an estimated construction cost of $3.5 million.
By late May, the state Commonwealth Transportation Board had $14.46 million in federal and state grants set aside to help replace the current bridge.
The amount of available money since has dropped by $2.36 million, leaving Charlottesville with $12.1 million to work with, said local Virginia Department or Transportation spokesman Lou Hatter. State transportation officials reviewing the money budgeted for the city-owned Belmont Bridge recently found that some of it included funds allocated for state roads and infrastructure.
Councilor Bob Fenwick, who initially championed the idea of repairing the Belmont Bridge rather than building a new one, is now considering a vote for the original option of a straight replacement.
His change of heart comes after learning that the state funds already allocated for a new bridge cannot instead be used for extensive repairs. He had hoped the money could cover the cost of fixing the Belmont Bridge and five other crumbling spans in the city.
“The money from [the state] was for new construction or replacement,” Fenwick said. “I’m not willing to gamble with public money.”
City engineers warn that straying too far afield of a basic bridge-replacement could push a design into the bureaucratic grind of a new state law that sets up an evaluation, or prioritization, system to determine where to spend the limited supply of state transportation money.
Under the new measure, urban-area transportation projects will be evaluated, or prioritized, based on congestion relief, and work in rural areas will be evaluated on economic impact. Safety always comes first, officials have said.
Changing the focus from replacing the Belmont Bridge to repairing all of the city’s deficient bridges would throw the projects into the state’s new prioritization process, city engineers said in the staff report drafted for Monday's council vote.
“Staff explored this with VDOT and was told that could only happen after opening each bridge repair as a project and then having those go through the state prioritization process,” the report states.
Monday's meeting begins at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers at City Hall.