Columns » Max Brantley

A bridge too few

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Little Rock's Broadway Bridge, which opened in 1923, was supposed to be a cutting edge design and last for 1,000 years. The state Highway Transportation Department proposes to replace it 910 years early, in 2013, with $45 million in bridge construction money.

Crumbling concrete facades pose no structural risks, but are a continuing headache. Traffic engineers would like better traffic lanes and better pathways for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Add to this wish list the desire of local elected officials — particularly Mayors Mark Stodola of Little Rock and Pat Hays of North Little Rock and County Judge Buddy Villines — to make the replacement bridge an icon. Architecturally arresting bridges have become a worldwide trend and they want Little Rock to keep up.

Metroplan's effort to stir up some interest in the fancy bridge cause hasn't produced a huge response yet. Only 364 responded to an on-line survey about bridge replacement. A bare plurality — 157 to 147 — favored an iconic design over making the bridge as attractive as possible within the budget.

A design competition, winner to be announced later this month, continues at newbroadwaybridge.org. But it is not binding on the Highway Department, which is at work on a replacement plan. Most expect that without local intervention the state's work will be every bit as lovely as the plugugly Main Street bridge, a replacement span itself.

What has not been discussed much to date is the disaster that awaits rush hour travelers when the Highway Department closes the Broadway Bridge for a year or two while building a replacement. The streets and freeway serving the Main Street and Interstate 30 bridges already experience gridlock at rush hour. The Broadway Bridge backup is even worse. Take that bridge out of commission and road rage on the alternate crossings will be volcanic.

What's the solution? Here's an idea that is getting a little bit of thought. The push for an iconic bridge as a replacement started late. Realistically, it's not going to happen in 2013 without an outpouring of public support not yet in evidence. The Highway Department won't bust its budget to create a striking design, which apparently costs more, though I can't tell you why. Unless a rich benefactor or local voters come up quickly with extra cash, a replacement built in 2013 seems most likely to be another utilitarian slab that will make us remember the old Broadway Bridge fondly.

But what if local voters could get behind a temporary tax to build a NEW river crossing first? The obvious spot would span the river at Chester Street and feed neatly into improving thoroughfares on the north shore, including the nearby Euro-style traffic circle. This isn't a state highway route so state money isn't available. It could be built for less than the Broadway Bridge replacement. A one-year county sales tax might do it.

The idea would be to build this span first and defer the Broadway replacement. When the Broadway Bridge did come down, there'd be an escape valve for traffic. A Chester Street crossing also would make the Broadway replacement cheaper because no connection ramp with LaHarpe would be needed. The local tax investment and savings might make the Highway Department more amenable to investing additional federal bridge money in appearances.

It's an idea at any rate. I like it better than the gunfights I fear will break out at Markham and Scott, just outside my office, if downtown bridge crossings are reduced to two in 2013.

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