The narrow footbridge that crosses U.S. 29 in Columbia opened three decades ago with the promise of connecting the town's commercial center with the residential communities to the east.
Today, the underused structure is unlit, encircled in chain-link fence and often covered in graffiti — uninviting to residents looking for a convenient way to cross the five-lane expressway that divides a town planned by renowned developer James W. Rouse, who sought to emphasize connections between its communities.
A group of residents has been lobbying Howard County to beautify and widen the structure to accommodate public transportation and unite Columbia's older villages in the east with a downtown that is slated to a undergo extensive, high-density redevelopment. The advocacy group, called Bridge Columbia, wants the county to make the bridge three times as wide as it is now, with two lanes for public transit only. County Executive Ken Ulman this year proposed a study of the crossing, an early step.
But the idea has sparked a debate. Some residents have expressed concerns about whether a transit-based project could be built for a reasonable price and whether there's enough demand for it, while advocates say Columbia needs a better link.
"I grew up in Long Reach and Oakland Mills. I spent a lot of time on those walking paths," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel Democrat. An improved bridge would provide "such a great way to connect all of that" with downtown and Howard Community College, she said.
"This is really about making Columbia a more transit-friendly community," said Frederick Gottemoeller, a member of Bridge Columbia and a bridge architect who moved to Columbia in 1969.
It takes 10 to 15 minutes to drive from Oakland Mills — directly to the east of U.S. 29 — to downtown via Broken Land Parkway or Route 175. Buses must follow the same route and run infrequently. For people who want to walk or bike, the footbridge remains the best option.
But widening it could prove costly — Bridge Columbia says its proposal could cost $15 million — and the county has only committed $100,000 to study the issue. The Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia's master developer as the Rouse Co. once was, has pledged $500,000 more for the study.
"I'm committed to improving that bridge," said Ulman, a Democrat. But he cautioned that it will take a lot of work to determine whether it should be opened to transit.
Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat and longtime Columbia resident, said the bridge project would be "a logical path forward," especially as gas prices continue to rise.
She worries, though, that construction would be challenging and notes that some residents don't want to open the footbridge to vehicles. She said the project must be considered along with other downtown-related transportation proposals, including improved road connections between U.S. 29 and the Town Center, Columbia's mall.
"There should be loads of ideas on the table. Jim Rouse did the same thing," she said, likening the project to many early Columbia projects that were considered experimental. "Some made it, some didn't make it, but we should not be afraid to put them on the table."
Residents of Oakland Mills, Columbia's second-oldest village, hope the project will help people get to and from their community, and in turn help to revitalize a commercial center that has struggled to retain businesses. Oakland Mills also has worked for several years to make the village a destination for music and arts events.
"I think Oakland Mills is a village that has a great deal of potential. There's a strong commitment to making the community the best it can be," said County Councilman Calvin Ball, an Oakland Mills Democrat.
"There was a time when it was one of the most sought-after communities in the county. A new bridge will make it like it once was — a sought-after place," said Ball, a former community revitalization officer and village board member.
Those pushing for an improved bridge are convinced the project would ease traffic congestion, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and promote public transportation with shorter commute times resembling Rouse's vision. They say the bridge would have far-reaching effects, not just benefiting the neighborhoods at each end.
"It's not just Oakland Mills, it's Long Reach, Owen Brown," Terrasa said.
Bridge Columbia advocates say a new design would make the pathway more visible and inviting, and add a welcoming symbol for those who drive on U.S. 29. Now, drivers might not recognize that they are in Columbia, Gottemoeller said.
"Unless the leaves are off the trees, you don't know it's here," he said.
Gottemoeller said he believes the bridge project would cost between $10 million and $15 million and that the majority of costs could be paid for with state and federal grants.
Barbara Kellner, executive director of Columbia Archives, said public transportation was one of Rouse's goals that was never fully realized. He created a bus system for the earliest residents, but it was later taken over by the county.
Kellner said public transportation "would take time to adjust here because we don't have an urban culture." But she added that the bridge project could provide a route for residents who move to new, more urban-style downtown developments and don't have their own outdoor space. They would be more inclined to walk, bike or hop on a bus over to Blandair Regional Park.
"I find it inspirational that they are thinking so big. That's what Columbia is all about," she said.
When the original footbridge was first discussed in the early 1970s, she said, those residents had similar goals to those lobbying for bridge improvements today — to promote bicycle riding and walking for the green and health benefits. It took those residents 10 years to accomplish their goal.
When Columbia was founded, U.S. 29 was just a two-lane road, which has grown with the city. In the next few years, Columbia's population is expected to reach 100,000 residents with the redevelopment of downtown — the first major project is slated to have more than 800 residential units.
Sandy Cederbaum, the Oakland Mills village manager, said she hopes a transit bridge would create a welcoming, easily accessible corridor to bring residents into the community and help address negative attitudes about the crossing.
Residents have complained about crime in the village, including near the bridge footpath. That reputation, however, may be overblown, Cederbaum said.
"People would say it's not safe. It's underutilized. People just won't use it," she said. "It's a perception more than that there are issues on the bridge."