Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/4194406818/

A Tale of Two Bridges

I recently had lunch with a friend of mine in St. Louis who shared the story of their vacation at Folly Beach near Charleston, South Carolina. On their trip they crossed two very similar cable-stayed bridges – the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge crossing the Mississippi River and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge crossing the Cooper River. We both mused how much the two structures were incredibly similar and yet their impact on the community was so radically different.

The cable-stayed design, popularized by Spanish architect and structural engineer Santiago Calatrava, is attractive and functional with with its decidedly modern, sleek lines. The technique has been incorporated into a large sail to capture the breezes from Lake Michigan on the roof of the Milwaukee Art Museum as well into a pedestrian bridge over the Reedy River Falls in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. China has all but adopted it as their official design given their extensive usage of the technique for some of the longest spans in the world.

A Modern Bridge for Historic Charleston

The Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge opened to traffic in 2005. With a bridge span of 1,546 feet and a total project length of 3.5 miles, at its opening it was the longest cable-stay bridge in North America (it is now the third longest). The $632 million project was the largest infrastructure in the history of South Carolina. It replaced two aging bridges that stretched from Charleston to Mount Pleasant, the lanes on one of which were so narrow that white knuckles were the norm in my family when riding alongside a truck.

The bridge was constructed over top of the older cantilever bridges while they were still in use and was constructed to withstand the potential hurricanes and earthquakes that regularly comprise Charleston’s history. In addition, it was designed in both span and height to accommodate the expected supercontainter ships coming through the widened Panama Canal to the Port of Charleston.

When it opened to the public approximately one year ahead of schedule and under budget, and after a week of public activities, it provided four wide travel lanes in each direction and a 12 foot wide pedestrian/bicycle track. The economic value from the bridge is significant – not just from the hundreds of thousands of cars that travel back and forth each year, but also for how people on foot or on a bike can exercise and enjoy the stunning views of the Charleston Harbor and beyond. It’s unique form now sits atop the podium sharing the prize with Charleston’s historic district as the region’s most distinctive features. In fact, according to TripAdvisor.com it is the second highest rated attraction in Charleston (second only to the Waterfront Park in the Historic District of downtown Charleston). Every April, the bridge accommodates the annual Cooper River Bridge Run and its more than 50,000 volunteers and participants to create an economic return of nearly $18 million from this event alone. And, on any given day, there are hundreds of walkers, cyclists, runners, and sightseers crossing the bridge.

Fast forward a decade.

On February 9, 2014, the country’s latest crossing of the mighty Mississippi River opened to traffic. Stretching from downtown St. Louis into Illinois, the new bridge re-routes I-70 from the busy Poplar Street Bridge, relieves a substantial amount of traffic from the Martin Luther King Bridge and provides a new connection to the downtown area via Tucker Boulevard. The cable-stayed main span measures 1500 feet and is supported by a substantial amount of road on both the Missouri and the Illinois sides. The $695 million project included $264 million for the cost of the actual bridge with the balance used to re-route I-70 on both sides.

Of course, the original cost exceeded $1.7 billion, so it should be expected that some items will be left on the cutting room floor to achieve a 60% cost savings. Certainly no expense was spared to re-route the Interstate to a new location north of the former alignment. At its opening, the bridge deck provided 4 travel lanes (two in each direction) with the ability to expand to six if necessary in the future with low-cost re-striping. And, perhaps most importantly, it is expected to substantially relieve two aging bridge structures, at least one of which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017.

On February 7th, just two days earlier, the bridge was christened by dignitaries from across the country with hundreds of people and cyclists having exclusive rights to enjoy the entire span that day. Here’s the problem: Somehow in all that value engineering, two crucial opportunities were lost by the absence of single design feature – a place for pedestrians and cyclists. As it turns out, in order to save all that money, the traffic engineers decided that the only bridge that would be built across the Mississippi in our lifetime would be for automobiles only. No trains, sidewalks, or bike lanes – just cars. The hundreds of people who attended the opening ceremony and crossed the bridge on foot will be the last people to ever walk on that bridge.

What Did We Learn? Nothing Apparently.

Apparently we didn’t learn a thing from the success of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. The only thing that the two infrastructure projects is a common design vocabulary. After that, the two projects diverge rather significantly. Most significantly, the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge inherent lack of facilities for pedestrians and cyclists missed a HUGE opportunity to leverage a massive infrastructure investment for a tourist opportunity. At the same time that the St. Louis region is investing $380 million in the renovation of the Arch Grounds to increase tourism, Missouri and Illinois chose the short sighted path that forgets that our infrastructure investments are just that – investments. It’s hard to believe that the St. Louis region will reap any real economic benefit other than the time savings for commuters traveling between Illinois and Missouri.

Imagine if St. Louis took a page from Charleston and Mount Pleasant with the construction of a park at the base of the bridge that connects to a pedestrian and bicycle pathway. Tens of thousands of visitors every year will be able view the Arch Grounds from the middle of the Mississippi River and exercise enthusiasts would be able to connect via a miles-long riverfront trail from the observation areas on the bridge to the Arch Grounds and into downtown and Illinois. In doing so, visitors will have a reason to stay another night and further expand the economic impact of tourism.

Throughout history, bridges have always been multi-functional and pieces of grand civic art. Even in China, who have nearly 30 cable-stayed bridges longer than can be found in North America, each project considers how cars, people, and transit can cross waterways and valleys. They recognize that such investments will only happen once in two or three lifetimes so to program them for a single use is unfathomable.

Perhaps in the future, saner heads will prevail and the bridge deck designated for additional lanes in the future will be converted to a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle path. Charleston was already a tourist mecca before the new bridge was constructed. But because the leadership in South Carolina understood the value of people to every infrastructure project, money was found to complete the project for the good of the entire region. St. Louis still has an opportunity in the future, perhaps as a part of the massive City Arch River project to rectify this $695 million mistake, and in doing so it could create true and lasting economic value rather than focusing on very short sighted one-time costs.

Featured Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/4194406818/

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