Critical connections: Bridges to watch on the East Coast Greenway

bridge markell trail rendering
Artist's rendering of the new bike-pedestrian bridge opening in the summer of 2018 over the Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware.

Bridges are some of the most crucial features of the East Coast Greenway. Spans of metal, concrete, and wood carry walkers, runners, and cyclists across rivers and over busy highways. Bridges also represent the most expensive of all Greenway segments to build, requiring extra engineering and materials. In 2018 we’ll be celebrating the opening of two beautiful new bridges that will greatly improve the Greenway route. At the same time, we join our partners in advocating for critically needed crossings in South Carolina and Georgia and for cyclist-pedestrian safety accommodations as older bridges get renovated.

Leaders in Farmington, Connecticut, are celebrating the completion of the town’s final 2.4 miles of the Greenway’s Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. Those last miles include a new, 135-foot metal and poured-in-place concrete bridge over the four lanes of busy Route 6 as part of the multi-use Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. The Greenway travels 47 miles along the north-south trail from New Haven to close to Hartford, where the Greenway then heads east.

An official dedication of the bridge is expected for sometime this spring. “This $5 million-plus project represents the direct wishes of Governor Malloy and Connecticut’s Department of Transportation to complete the 200 miles of ECG in their state,” says Tri-State Greenway Coordinator Bruce Donald. “This is the first time that the state has committed bonded funds to wholly complete such a large project. It also represents 25 years of work by advocates, town staff, and elected officials. This will be yet another destination on this historic and hugely popular trail system.”

A few states south, organizers are gearing up to celebrate another major bridge opening, this one over the Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware. The 345-foot bicycle and pedestrian bridge is the longest bicycle and pedestrian bridge to be built in the state. The new span completes a seven-mile segment of the Greenway from Wilmington to New Castle.

“It’s a pretty dramatic improvement to our route,” says Mid-Atlantic Coordinator Daniel Paschall. “The Northern Delaware Greenway is a gem, and that brings you into Wilmington and the Riverwalk. Now you’ll pass through the beautiful Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge, cross the Christina, and travel on the Jack Markell Trail to New Castle, which is an extraordinary colonial town.” The bridge opens to the public this summer and will be celebrated officially on July 14 with Trailfest. Funding for the bridge and miles of new trail has come from a collaboration of regional, state, and federal sources and was championed by the new trail’s namesake, former Governor Jack Markell.

Further south, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, offers a tale of two bridges. The city sits on a peninsula between two rivers, the Cooper and the Ashley. On the north side, the Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper RIver offers a picture-perfect example of a safe bicycle-pedestrian crossing: a protected 12-foot lane is separated from traffic and even offers a few small bays to stop and admire the spectacular view. To the south, however, two heavily-trafficked bridges — one inbound, one outbound — carry cars and trucks over the Ashley River with barely a shoulder for bicycles.

“It’s been studied for years, looking for ways to make it safe for people on bikes and on foot,” says South Carolina/Georgia Greenway Coordinator Brent Buice. “Last year the city and county demonstrated a lane reconfiguration, converting one lane into a protected bike/pedestrian lane with cones, but the county wouldn’t agree to make it permanent.”

Local officials are waiting to hear about a $12 million federal TIGER grant to build a stand-alone bicycle-pedestrian bridge. News on funding should come in April.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Buice says of solving the Ashley River crossing. “We’ve got a beautiful eight-mile stretch of greenway through the West Ashley neighborhood and then a scenic ride through the city with just a single gap — which is the bridge crossing.”

Advocates are also at work in Savannah, Georgia, where the Greenway has to cross over the Savannah River twice as it splits around a small island. As the state of South Carolina embarks on widening U.S. 17 from two to four lanes, opportunities could open for better bicycle-pedestrian access. The current East Coast Greenway route crosses the Back River to Hutchinson Island on 17, where cyclists can take a free public ferry to the downtown Savannah waterfront. Construction will create a new two-lane bridge, which includes a 10-foot protect bike-pedestrian path — great for northbound travellers but will require a connection for southbound travellers.

“The bridge work is a joint effort of two state transportation departments, Georgia and South Carolina, sharing costs and design work,” says Buice. “The widening work will be complicated because it involves wetlands, so we’re probably looking at several years before it is complete.”

Meanwhile, a campaign is underway to ensure that bicycle and pedestrian safety is included in restoration/rebuilding projects planned for major bridges along the Greenway. Tom Kaiden, a member of the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s board, wrote a letter in the Washington Post urging that the rebuilding of the popular Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington D.C. include an improved bike-pedestrian lane and access to the bridge on both sides.

A similar effort led in recent years by the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition, Transportation Alternatives, and other partners led successfully to an agreement with the Port Authority as it plans for massive renovations to the George Washington Bridge, on the Greenway’s complementary route and the only on-road connection between New York and New Jersey. The agreement calls for a redesign of all four bike-ped entrances to the bridge; new, separate sidewalks for cyclists and pedestrians; ADA compliant access ramps, safe viewing areas (like Charleston’s Ravenel Bridge), and other changes.

The news hasn’t been as promising in Maryland, where the Greenway crosses the Susquehanna River on the 1.3-mile Hatem Bridge. A campaign first achieved the right for bicyclists to cross the bridge, but beginning in September 2016, the Maryland Transportation Authority allows bikes on the bridge only between dawn and dusk on weekends and state holidays. Before crossing, bicyclists must push a button that activates a flashing light on the bridge. The warning light flashes for 10 to 15 minutes to alert drivers that a cyclist is on the road.

“The limited access is still one small step,” says Paschall. “We’re still aiming ultimately for a safe, protected way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the river.”


Read more of the February 2018 issue of On the Greenway

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