The Jefferson Avenue Footbridge was closed to pedestrians and cyclists in 2016 because engineers deemed the bridge structurally unsafe. (Photo by Rance Burger)

If at first you don’t succeed, try to get money for the bridge again.

The Springfield City Council voted to apply for an $8.6 million federal funding package to rehabilitate the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge, an iconic symbol of Commercial Street and a fixture of the northern Springfield skyscape.

For the second time, the Springfield Department of Public Works will apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation Rebuilding American Infrastructure and Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program. The City Council voted 8-0 to push the grant application Jan. 9.

The potential cost of fixing the bridge and making it suitable for pedestrian traffic again is high because of the age of the bridge, the bridge’s lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the bridge was painted with lead paint, and that the bridge crosses an active BNSF railyard and spans 13 tracks.

Springfield Traffic Engineer Tom Dancey said Springfield’s application for funding for the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge reached the final stages of consideration in 2022, but was not one of the 166 projects chosen for funding.

“It is a very competitive grant program,” Dancey said.

Upon denial, Dancey said, Springfield engineers received some encouragement for 2023.

“Our staff did have a follow-up debrief with the Federal Highway Administration to discuss the application and we were encouraged to apply again this year,” Dancey said, “so we have made notes of possible design features that can be included to make it more competitive for this year’s application.”

Dancey told the City Council the Springfield Department of Public Works applied for a railroad crossing elimination grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in late 2022, but have not heard back from federal transportation officials regarding the application.

Springfield turned in one of 303 applications for RAISE grants in 2022.

“We didn’t get it in the last round, but we did get a letter that basically said — I’m going to paraphrase — we were very close, and it encouraged us to reapply,” City Manager Jason Gage said. “So we looked at that, tweaked that, and we hope that we have made up the difference we need and that our odds are pretty good.”

RAISE previously went by another name, the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program. BUILD funded $20.9 million toward development of Grant Avenue Parkway, a plan to create an off-street pedestrian and bicycle pathway along Grant Avenue from Sunshine Street to College Street in downtown Springfield. The south hub of the project area is the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium on Sunshine Street off of Campbell Avenue.

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)

Higher-than-anticipated cost

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. 

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. 

“This year’s RAISE Grant could provide the additional funding needed for this project,” Gugel wrote in a memo to the Springfield City Council.

Since the bridge crosses active railroad tracks, 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.

With such a wide price discrepancy, Springfield’s leaders decided to wait out a high-priced time in the construction trades and look for funding from grants and/or congressional allocations.

Bridge has been closed for nearly 7 years

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 is closed to pedestrians. Chain link barricades keep people from walking up the steps to the bridge deck.

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. 

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.

Technical drawings found in Springfield City Council documentation show two variations of plans to refurbish the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge. The lower design shows the bridge extending farther into a plaza on Commercial Street. (Photo by Rance Burger)

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