New designs and better security on the Route 29 pedestrian bridge in Columbia are moving forward under the Howard County Office of Transportation as residents continue questioning the likelihood of a new transit bridge connecting Columbia's Town Center to the Village of Oakland Mills in the foreseeable future.
For more than five years, state and county officials, as well as community advocates like Friends of Bridge Columbia, have openly discussed concepts and designs for a new time-efficient and user-friendly bridge to replace the existing bridge. The current bridge caters only to foot and bicycle traffic, but ideas for a new bridge have ranged from transit iconic-designed bridges to lake bridges over Lake Kittamaqundi.
As a short-term solution to a potentially long-term project, county transportation and public works staff shared renovation plans for the current bridge with residents Wednesday evening at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
"We're looking to definitely fix some of the immediate issues that are there in terms of people's comfort level and the aesthetics of it," said David Cookson, transportation planner for the county. "It doesn't necessarily preclude any future improvements, but we're looking to do something that can be done relatively quickly for a reasonable cost."
Cookson said the transportation department is in the early stages of reviewing conceptual designs and options with its architects and engineers to reinvigorate the existing bridge. Renovations to both bridge entrances were completed last month after being widened, paved and lighted.
However, a top priority is addressing safety concerns for daytime and nighttime use.
Despite the two security cameras installed at each side, Cookson said the bridge's low lighting and dense tree cover has made the area less appealing to residents. Talks of new security features include established connections between the cameras and the county's police monitoring system.
"Right now, it's a cellphone system [and] like most cellphone signals, the quality is not great," Cookson said. "In the interest of having more robust connections, we're looking at running a hardwire connection, like a fiber optic cable, to each set of cameras so we know there's a heightened degree of certainty that those cameras are always going to be looking at the bridge."
Another renovation will replace the brown chain-link fencing and cage that currently span over the bridge — individually or both — with colored fencing and cage, Cookson said. Other alternatives would remove chain-link and use a spiraling, colored and lighted metal paneling or frame to open up the walkway.
"It ranges from replacing the existing cage and fencing to putting on a new structure for the cage with various treatments and designs and colors and lighting," Cookson said.
Total costs are estimated anywhere between $375,000 for fencing-only replacement to $1,525,000 for space framing, Cookson said, covering bridge retrofitting, lighting, possible lettering, camera cables, anti-graffiti coating as well as engineering and design. Howard Hughes Corporation's $500,000 investment and the county's $100,000 will go toward the project.
Although the county owns the bridge, Maryland State Highway spokesman David Buck said they must approve the county's concepts before any lighting adjustments begin since the bridge runs over a state-owned roadway.
"Our role is to make sure that when people are traveling on [Route] 29 when they look up, they see consistency with the bridge in terms of lighting," Buck said. "Driving is a full-time operation. That's why we have consistency with signage, traffic signals, guardrails and how bridges look. We just want to make sure that the safety of the motorists on 29 is and would be taken into account."
Individual lights must be a certain distance apart, Buck added, while certain colors of fencing may also be a concern, since both can create distractions for drivers.
"It's one thing when you're on the bridge. We have to look at it from the perspective of the motorists on 29," he said. "If you have this elaborate, colorful, overly ornate structure that draws the attention away, then that's where we'll step in and say, 'Let's rethink this. Is there a different way to do this and compromise?'"
Some Columbia residents who use the bridge said they've voiced their concerns for quite some time about its lack of security, but were pleased with the transportation department's presentation.
Oakland Mills resident Gerry Witte, 72, said he rarely uses the bridge anymore, but hopes the spiraled design option comes to fruition.
"I'd like to see it spruced up a little bit and I would certainly use it more," Witte said. "It's a little hard for me to decide how enclosed it's going to feel, but my main concern is safety."
Bill Gray, 65, said he bikes and walks across the bridge almost every day from his home in Oakland Mills. Leaving the meeting Wednesday, he said he was impressed by the transportation department's designs.
"I was really glad to see them looking at it," Gray said. "I thought they were looking at very creative ways and they took into account a number of issues that impact the usability of the current bridge."
Heidi Knott, 61, also of Oakland Mills, agreed, saying the new and improved bridge will be yet another Columbia icon.
"I think the idea of doing something to highlight Columbia, whether it's lettering or colors, is wonderful," Knott said. "It's needed because you can just drive through and not know where you are. I want something that says, 'We're in Columbia and we're here.'"
After garnering input Wednesday evening, county transportation and state highway officials said they will incorporate residents' thoughts as they work further on renovation plans for the bridge. Cookson said the county administration would make the final decision.
"The next step is for the county to reintegrate some of the comments and the select the path," Cookson said. "We've had some initial discussions [with the state highway administration], but as we make initial selections of how we're going to move forward, we'll tweak and finalize the design."