A transportation study conducted by Howard Hughes Corp. has concluded that a transit bridge over Route 29 connecting downtown Columbia and Oakland Mills would not be used enough to justify the bridge's cost, according to county Transportation Administrator John Powell.
Powell shared the study's conclusion on Bridge Columbia, the name supporters of the transit bridge concept have given the proposal, with the County Council at its monthly meeting last week. The proposed bridge, which would also accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, would replace the existing footbridge over Route 29 that connects east and west Columbia.
"(The study) really didn't support the kind of money that we were talking about to build that bridge," Powell told the council, noting Howard Hughes provided the county with its findings but the county has not yet accepted the study.
However, Powell said the county plans to conduct an economic impact study, which will look at the potential benefits of building a transit bridge that go beyond use, such as jobs, residents and property values. Powell said the economic impact study would take about four to six months.
Council members expressed concern about the county spending its money to look at factors Howard Hughes, which owns much of downtown Columbia, should have looked at in its study.
"It just seems to be saying a lot of people don't ride the bus. ... I'm not sure we need to have a study just to say that," Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball said at the meeting. " I don't know why we would use county money if they haven't completed their scope of work."
Howard Hughes vice president of engineering and construction Robert Jenkins, in an emailed statement, would not comment on the study, other than to say "now it is up to the county to evaluate the results."
Fred Gottemoeller, a bridge architect and engineer who lives in town center and has been an active Bridge Columbia supporter, said he doesn't agree with Howard Hughes' conclusion.
"We think they took too narrow a look at the contributions the project could make to Columbia and took a very conventional approach to what the ridership might be," he said. "In our opinion, the whole environment for transit, transportation decisions is changing. We've got a much more elderly population in general. We've got a lot more people who depend on buses."
Gottemoeller estimates the cost of building the bridge would be between $12 million and $15 million, but the county could only have to pay a small portion of that.
"This is a transit project that would be eligible for federal aid, about up to 80 percent," he said.
At a budget hearing in March, County Executive Ken Ulman told Bridge Columbia supporters he is "skeptical" about the ability to fund the construction of the bridge through grant money.
Though Ulman has expressed concern that building a transit bridge might not be a good use of county dollars, he agreed to study the idea.
The fiscal year 2013 capital budget the council approved in May included $100,000 in county funds and $500,000 from Howard Hughes to conduct a feasibility study.
Though Howard Hughes' conclusion would seem to be an obstacle toward building the bridge, supporters of the Bridge Columbia concept still believe transit is an important component of the plan.
"We see it as key to any real redevelopment of Oakland Mills," said Phil Engelke, co-chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board of Director. He noted that the village, while close to downtown Columbia in physical distance, is "very much removed economically."
Engelke said when he moved to Columbia in the 1970s, the old Oakland Mills Road and Owen Brown Road connected to "a much less used" Route 29.
"The reason we're kind of pushing the transit thing is when they connected Broken Land Parkway and (Route) 175 years ago, it basically left Oakland Mills kind of in a no man's land," he said. "We wanted to have something larger than just a pedestrian bridge is so we could again connect back into the downtown."
With the redevelopment, Engelke said "the spine of Columbia" is seen as running from Howard County General Hospital to downtown by the Mall in Columbia, across to Oakland Mills and Blandair Park. Howard Hughes is required by the Downtown Columbia Plan, the guiding document the council passed on the redevelopment in 2010, to build a pathway that makes that connection.
"Just reconditioning the bridge that's there is a cheap fix. ... It's not going to do what we want to do," Engelke said.
Lee Richardson, chairman of the Town Center Village Board of Directors, agreed. "Some type of transit coming across that bridge would be ideal," he said
A transit connection, he said, is particularly important for people with physical disabilities that would prevent them from walking or biking across the footbridge.
Alex Hekimian, the Oakland Mills representative on the Columbia Association Board, said he there is a demand for a transit connection across Route 29.
"I think there are people in Columbia who would question the presumption that there's not the demand for that kind of bridge," he said. "That bridge, by being there, would create new demand that may not necessarily be there now."
Hekimian said people choose not to use the existing footbridge because it's "intimidating," but he believes a new bridge would generate more use.
"It would also be a signature feature of Columbia," he said. "As people drive up (Route) 29 and see this bridge, which could be designed very, very nicely, I think it would add to the attractiveness of Columbia."