Representatives from the school system, library, community college and nonprofits are often familiar faces at County Executive Ken Ulman's annual budget hearings.
But this year, there were some new faces in the crowd of roughly 50 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Slightly less than a dozen of the attendees came out March 14 to request funding for Bridge Columbia, a proposal to replace the existing footbridge that runs across Route 29, connecting downtown Columbia to Oakland Mills, with a larger bridge that would accommodate buses, as well as bikers and pedestrians.
"It could end up being the iconic Howard County structure that's visible to all as they drive down 29," Oakland Mills Village Board chairwoman Abby Hendrix said, noting that the current footbridge "is deplorable and unsafe."
She said the supporters are asking for $200,000 to $300,000 in the county's capital budget to fund an engineering and environmental study, which would allow the county to apply for state and federal grant money for the project.
"This project could provide not only a signature architectural statement but also help achieve county priorities of improving connectivity and offering more sustainable transportation choices," Oakland Mills resident Alex Hekimian said.
Hekimian, who serves on the Columbia Association Board, said the funding request is timely given the federal transportation reauthorization legislation that would fund road, bridge and mass transit projects across the country. The bill passed the U.S. Senate this week.
John Slater, of Columbia, said there is a potential that 80 percent of the entire project could be funded through federal grants and thus the cost to the county is "not a lot of money in today's economy."
The county is responsible for the current footbridge, which Slater called "a security risk" and "a visual eyesore."
"The county must deal with this bridge one way or another," he said. "Why not deal with it in the right way, in a sustainable way?"
Slater added: "I'm convinced this transit bridge will help revitalize Oakland Mills."
After all but one of the Bridge Columbia supporters testified, Ulman shared his thoughts on the proposal.
"I'm in complete 100 percent agreement on a number of things," he said. "One is the condition of the current bridge, couldn't agree more."
Ulman said he also agrees the proposed bridge would provide an "iconic look," foster bikeability and walkability from downtown to Oakland Mills and "have a positive spillover effect in other villages."
However, Ulman said he is concerned about the transit aspect of the plan "because that does increase the cost" and would need to be convinced the bridge would increase bus ridership. After the hearing, he explained that building a bridge to support buses would cost millions more than replacing or renovating the footbridge and would involve creating road connections.
Ulman also told the testifiers he is "skeptical" about the ability to fund the construction of the bridge through grant money.
"I would do cartwheels in every part of this room if we acquired funds to pay the balance," he said.
While Ulman said he is "intrigued" by the proposal and that the $200,000 to $300,000 funding request is "reasonable," he is undecided about whether or not to include Bridge Columbia in his capital budget.
Columbia resident Christopher Tsien, who serves as the president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County and is on CA's transportation task force, testified after Ulman spoke about the proposal and thus had the opportunity to address some of his concerns.
"We need a bridge that accommodates not only active transportation but also mass transportation," Tsien said. "Because it's a mistake to think of transportation as only 'I have to get from here to there in one trip' ... I can use several modalities to get to one place."