Columbia pedestrian bridge upgrades to begin this fall

Columbia pedestrian bridge upgrades to begin this fall

A pedestrian bridge that crosses Route 29 in Columbia is slated for $1.25 million in renovations this fall as the county explores broader plans to further upgrade the bridge, Howard County Executive Kittleman announced Wednesday.

Plans for Bridge Columbia, which connects the village of Oakland Mills to downtown Columbia, have been under discussion for more than five years as the county considers ways to connect Columbia's urban core with surrounding village centers.

The project will help rejuvenate Oakland Mills, which was one of the first villages built after Columbia was founded 50 years ago, and connect east and west Columbia, Kittleman said Wednesday.

Renovations, expected to be completed by spring next year, would transform the cage-like structure into a shell-like structure with upgraded lighting and a security system that will allow the police department to view clearer footage of the area.

"We all know this bridge has long needed repairs and with Columbia turning 50 this year, it signifies not only the success of our community but also the need to ensure the infrastructure get repaired as well," Kittleman said.

Howard Hughes Corp., a Dallas-based company and the master developer of downtown Columbia, committed $500,000 for the project, which the company's vice president of development, Greg Fitchitt, said would transform the "eyesore" into an "icon." The county will cover the remaining cost of the project.

Since it was built more than 30 years ago, the pedestrian bridge has not fully delivered on its promise to connect downtown Columbia with residential areas to its east. The structure is poorly lit, caged in a chain-like fence and connected through a pathway bordered by a forest, according to a 2015 study URS Corp. completed for the county.

The plans are a short-term fix as the county considers long-term plans for a larger replacement project that could include major construction and bus transit. More than two years ago, Kittleman backed plans by the Oakland Mills Village Center board to replace the bridge and include, at a minimum, public transit.

Securing funding sources for the long-term, multimillion dollar project has been a challenge, but the Kittleman administration is actively exploring ideas, according to county spokesman Andy Barth.

The design was selected after public input, with residents from Oakland Mills Village Center overwhelmingly supporting the new geodesic structure, said Sandy Cederbaum, village manager for Oakland Mills.

"This design does not do anything to delay or alter the long-term plan. They can be done in concert with one another," Cederbaum said.

The county's Office of Transportation is working with residents to explore how to add bus transport to the bridge. As part of a broader plan to overhaul the county's aging transit system, the office plans to launch a study on the bridge next week. Possible options include adding a transit route that would incorporate the bridge and could run through downtown Columbia and Gateway, a corporate park, according to Clive Graham, who heads the office.

Pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists are a central part of the county's vision for downtown Columbia. A bike share program is also set to launch in May.

Milton Matthews, president of the Columbia Association, said the bridge creates an appealing pathway to route foot traffic from Columbia's urban core to surrounding communities, Blandair Park and other areas.

"I believe there will be a spillover effect from the redevelopment activities in the downtown area that will benefit and be an impetus for the redevelopment activity on the villages on the east side," Matthews said.

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