The Jefferson Avenue footbridge is built to carry pedestrians over 13 different sets of railroad tracks that all pass north of Commercial Street. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Summary

The Jefferson Avenue footbridge is closed due to structural deficiency. More than a route of safe passage, it is a landmark on historic Commercial Street. The estimated cost to repair or replace the bridge is about $2 million more than originally thought.

It’s an icon of the north side, a landmark for Commercial Street and the gateway to Moon City. The Jefferson Avenue footbridge — and its potentially pricey repair — is also the subject of debate for the Springfield City Council, Landmarks Board, Department of Public Works and other groups.

The bridge is built to carry pedestrians over 13 different sets of railroad tracks that all pass north of Commercial Street, near the core of the Historic C-Street neighborhood.

The Springfield City Council put $3.2 million in the public works budget to rehabilitate the bridge in 2021, but the lowest bid that came back for a contractor willing to accept the project was $5.8 million. With such a wide discrepancy, city council members and other stakeholders with an interest in restoring the footbridge are waiting out a tricky time in the construction industry.

City Councilman Richard Ollis holds one of the four at-large positions on the Springfield City Council, which means that he isn’t technically bound to represent a particular zone of Springfield. Ollis grew up three blocks from Commercial Street.

“Commercial Street has a very, very special place in my heart,” Ollis said. “My great-grandfather and his two brothers came to Springfield in 1885, and when they did, they located our business, which I’m still involved with today, on Commercial Street. We were on Commercial Street for 90 years.”

Construction in jeopardy

Commercial Street, not far from the Jefferson Avenue footbridge. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Why care?

The Springfield City Council devised a plan to fund the refurbishing of the Jefferson Avenue footbridge using a blend of federal grants, local tax revenue and donations from citizens. Plans to spruce up the footbridge plaza on Commercial Street coincide with the planned reopening of the bridge, but for the moment, the plans are on hold due to the higher-than-anticipated costs of the project.

Ollis said that the high bids for the footbridge restoration present two challenges: what to do immediately, and what to do in the months and years to come.

“We were all disappointed that the bids were so significantly higher than what we had originally anticipated, and so we’re trying to look at ways that we might be able to at least create an experience where you could view the footbridge, and maybe some type of platform or something like that. That’s kind of a short-term alternative,” Ollis said.

Long term, the city council will have to come up with more money or wait to see if trends in the construction industry cause price estimates to drop.

“We continue to look at possible solutions or alternatives that might be available for us to refurbish the footbridge,” Ollis said.

In January, Landmarks Board member John Hawkins volunteered and gained the approval of his peers to write a letter to the Springfield City Council about the Jefferson Avenue footbridge. The final draft of the letter gained approval by the Landmarks Board Feb. 9.

In the letter, the Landmarks Board suggested that a task force be formed to move the conversation of the footbridge out of its holding pattern.

“It’s us going on the record wanting to be supportive and involved in this process. We really don’t have any power in the end, especially with regards to budgets and money and things like that,” Landmarks Board Chair Kaitlyn McConnell* said. “A lot of people love the footbridge. Besides our board, a lot of people have shown an interest in the last few years.”

The budget

Barricades block people from accessing the Jefferson Avenue footbridge from its south end at a plaza on Commercial Street. The bridge has been closed to foot traffic since 2016. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Who is affected?

Springfield taxpayers, anyone who hopes for a vibrant Commercial Street, BNSF Railway, residents of the Woodland Heights neighborhood, supporters of the Moon City creative district.

In 2021, Springfield had $3.2 million in its budget to rehabilitate the Jefferson Avenue footbridge, which included engineering and construction work. Eighty percent of the funding was to come from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Block Grants program. Twenty percent of the funding needed to be a local match to satisfy the terms of the grant. The city council planned to fund the match through a combination of sources, including a ¼-cent capital improvement sales tax and a ⅛-cent transportation sales tax. The match also called for the Commercial Club of Springfield to raise $50,000 through donations from the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge Fund of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

The nine-member Landmarks Board advises the Springfield City Council, mayor, city manager, park board and planning and zoning commission on matters related to protecting and preserving historic sites. The board position for “Commercial Street Representative” is vacant.

“We definitely have a very vested interest in the footbridge, and have been very interested and anxious to be involved,” McConnell said. “It’s been on our agenda on an ongoing basis over the last several years that I have been on the board.”

In 2016, the Springfield Department of Public Works hired consulting engineers from Great River Engineering to evaluate the bridge’s overall safety rating. On March 1, 2016, the footbridge was closed for the second time in the 21st Century because of safety concerns.

“Results uncovered deficiencies in more than one-third of the primary structural members and required the continued closure of the bridge until extensive repairs could be made,” a city of Springfield press release from Sept. 21, 2021, reads, in part.

The bridge remained close, with chain-link barricades keeping people from accessing it or walking up the steps.

“It’s been closed for so long, and it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle,” McConnell said.

The paint on the bridge has worn to the point that it no longer protects the metal from corrosion.

Rehabilitating bridge may not make sense

The Jefferson Avenue footbridge was built by the American Bridge Company in 1902. It was made to carry pedestrians and cyclists over a rail yard between Commercial Street and Chase Street. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Springfield sought bids for another rehabilitation in 2021. The scope of the project included the repair and/or replacement of corroded or lost steel, the replacement of wood decking, the replacement of stairs, the addition of elevators on the north and south bridge approaches to make it accessible to all and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“I would love to see the footbridge repaired in the historic aspect that it originally was built in, but I’m not an engineer and I don’t deal with ADA and all of those other things,” Ollis said. “The footbridge is an iconic landmark, and again, if we can save the historic significance of it, that would be great.”

If it can’t be opened to foot traffic again, McConnell said she would like to see the bridge stay in place as a historical landmark, where it could still be viewed and celebrated.

“Once we lose parts of our history, they’re gone. You can’t recapture it, and it’s a loss for everyone,” McConnell said.

She adds that, financially, it may not make sense to rehabilitate the bridge to the point that people can walk or ride across it again.

City staffers have been directed to explore building a public viewing platform near the bridge, which would allow people to see it from another vantage point and learn about its history.

“We’ve directed the staff, and I think the staff is responding to that, that we’d like to look at alternatives, and this viewing deck might be at least a short-term strategy,” Ollis said.

Bids over budget

A pedestrian tunnel north of Commercial Street allows people walking along Lyon Avenue to cross under three railroad tracks that run east and west. The Lyon Avenue crossing is one of two pedestrian crossings seen as integral to foot traffic between Commercial Street and the Woodland Heights neighborhood. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Springfield City Council documentation shows that one base bid came in at $5.5 million, and a second bid came in at $5.8 million. That’s much higher than local officials anticipated. The original base bid was estimated by Springfield Public Works employees at $2.87 million, with a base bid with an alternate addition at $3.04 million, with federal funding accounting for $2.56 million.

The city council declined to accept either bid and asked staff members to research additional funding sources. The council also asked the staff to look into improving the appearance of the barricades that stop pedestrians from accessing the footbridge and to look at enhancing other pedestrian routes over the railroad tracks at Lyon Avenue and Washington Avenue.

Ollis said he would support an effort to spruce up the Washington and Lyon underpasses.

“Let’s improve the pedestrian access on Washington and Lyon so that we’re at least accomplishing a better way to get from the north side or south side of the train tracks to the other side,” Ollis said.

Lyon Avenue sits on the west side of the Historic C-Street District, while Jefferson Avenue is on the eastern end. They bookend a BNSF rail yard that sits north of Commercial Street. The rail yard is about half a mile long, and up to 13 tracks wide.

Springfield Public Works Assistant Director Martin Gugel cited the construction bidding environment, including material prices, intensive labor costs, contractor and subcontractor availability and the risk involved when working over active railroad tracks as potential reasons the bids clocked in higher than the original estimate. 

The Missouri Department of Transportation must also confer with the city and concur on a bid award. MoDOT did not approve of either bid that was submitted in October 2021.

“Due to difficulties with labor shortages and scheduling conflicts, both contractors struggled to provide documentation of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) requirement within a three-day post-bid window,” Gugel said in December 2021. “Upon review of the documentation and good faith effort on the part of both companies, MoDOT indicated they would not concur with awarding either proposal.” 

Possible futures for the footbridge — and their cost

When it comes to future options for the Jefferson Avenue footbridge, the consulting engineers suggested five different tracks that the city could pursue, and they estimated the cost of each option: 

$410,000 — do nothing and schedule a demolition

$10.9 million — ($2.3 million initial cost) do minimal rehabilitation work that would allow the bridge to be open until a replacement in 2029

$16.8 million — ($2.8 million initial cost) preserve the original bridge in such a way that rehabilitation would be needed every 24 years

$8.4 million — ($2.8 million initial cost) do a full rehabilitation with a plan to replace the Jefferson Avenue footbridge in 2041

$8 million — ($3 million initial cost) remove the existing bridge and replace it immediately.

History and figures

The Jefferson Avenue footbridge was built by the American Bridge Company in 1902. The design is a cantilevered Warren through truss. The footbridge was property of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company until BNSF sold the bridge to the city of Springfield for $1 in 1998.

The bridge was restored in 2002, ahead of its centennial celebration. The $518,000 restoration project was partially funded through federal transportation grants and through the U.S. Community Development Block Grant program. 

“It was minimal. We looked and replaced the parts of the structure that were in the most need of attention,” Gugel said at a city council briefing in December 2021.

Developers also built a plaza on the south side of the bridge, at the intersection of Commercial Street and North Jefferson Avenue. The footbridge reopened on April 17, 2002.

The 562-foot bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

“It definitely is a landmark and icon for the north side of the city. It provides a transportation connection which is significant between residential areas and the Commercial Street historic district,” Gugel said.

In August 2021, the Springfield City Council approved a budget adjustment allocating $655,000 to support improvement projects in the Commercial Street Historic District.

City staff recommended that the city council allocate $290,000 of tax increment financing (TIF) funding and an additional $365,000 from previous-budgeted Springfield Public Works funds as cost-sharing to complete improvements including installation of directional signs, improvements to two public parking lots, the purchase or sponsorship of more public art, and the schematic design for updates to the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge Plaza. The improvements to the plaza were planned to be done in concert with the bridge refurbishment, as the city council and Commercial Street TIF District documentation reflects.

Tax increment financing is an economic development tool that allows a local government to issue bonds in order to borrow money to finance improvement projects. The bond amount is based on the estimated future property tax revenue gains that the local government will make if the improvements are made.

How to get involved

Check out the Springfield Commercial Club

Contact city council members

Springfield Landmarks Board

Editor’s note: In addition to serving on the Springfield Landmarks Board, Kaitlyn McConnell is a freelance writer who shares her stories with readers of the Springfield Daily Citizen. She is quoted in this story in her capacity as the chair of the Landmarks Board.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger