The future of the Broadway bridges

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1996,
August 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

Date: August 1996

As it did in 1828, the Broadway Bridge still provides the only direct link between central Ann Arbor and the near north side. Yet many of the thousands of people who cross it each day never realize that it is really two bridges. One bridge, built about 1916, crosses the river. A second, built about 1929, carries traffic up over the railroad tracks and Depot Street.

Now both bridges need attention: the concrete is crumbling, the steel supports are rusting, and under the older bridge the earthen fill is fill is escaping. In addition, the railings don't meet current standards, the sidewalk is too narrow, and the steep overpass does not meet current requirements for sight distance. While there is no immediate danger to drivers or pedestrians, stresses city project engineer Mike Nearing, the problems obviously have to be addressed.

The city has started the process by hiring Johnson Johnson & Roy to do an environmental assessment of the two bridges to determine their present condition, how they can be fixed, and the impact of various approaches on the nearby buildings and the natural surroundings. Since both bridges are over fifty years old, they will probably be put on the state's list of historic bridges, which means that the final plan, in order to qualify for government funding, will have to either keep the historic character of the bridges or justify why this is not possible.

Starting with five suggested approaches (in engineering jargon, "illustrative alternatives"), the list has now been whittled down to three: to keep the bridges as they are (not really an option but a baseline), to rehab the bridges, or to completely replace them. A variant on the last would be to replace only the bridge over the river and return the railroad-tracks crossing to grade level. The two rejected ideas were to build a bypass around the bridges (ruled out on the grounds that the present location is the logical place to cross the river) and to move them to a new location. Historic wooden or wrought iron bridges are often moved, but the Broadway bridges are concrete.

Mike Nearing estimates that, even under the best scenario, it will be several years before bridge work begins. JJR's report should be completed by next June, by which time the city will also know whether it qualifies for state Critical Bridge Funds. Planning will then take another year. But the city is already seeking public input: it held a community workshop on May 16 to talk about the decision-making process and is planning a second to explain the proposed alternatives.

Although Nearing sent out notices to over 2,500 people living near the bridges, and to business, government, and neighborhood groups, fewer than 100 people came to the May meeting, held in Huron High's cafeteria. Someone in the audience quipped that if the meeting had been held at the foot of the bridge at rush hour, it would have been better attended. The next meeting will be August 15 at the same place. "If we get all of the issues out of the way now, it will be easier later," Nearing explains. "There should be very little fanfare at the end of the design process, and we can move right into construction without a lot of acrimony."