Bridge Columbia advocates expand plan for Route 29 bridge

When a study published last September concluded a transit bridge connecting the Columbia villages of Town Center and Oakland Mills was too costly, proponents of the plan, called Bridge Columbia, were not deterred.

Even though some groups may haven taken the report as a signal to scale back, Friends of Bridge Columbia did the exact opposite.

"We've been doing two things since then, expanding and explaining," said Fred Gottemoeller, a lead proponent of the group.

Now, a year after the original plan was rebuffed, the group is raising support for a new iteration of the plan, which calls for the replacement of the existing footbridge over Route 29 in favor of "an iconic, landmark" transit bridge.

"The reality is that we have two Columbias divided by Route 29," Gottemoeller said at a presentation last week in front of Transportation Advocates of Howard County, a volunteer group that supports transit-oriented endeavors.

At the presentation, held at the Bain Center in Columbia, Gottemoeller laid out the updated case for the project, which he estimates will cost $10 to $15 million. The new bridge would be wider and more inviting than the existing footbridge, and provide access only for county buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. According to Gottemoeller, it currently takes anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to travel from Oakland Mills to Town Center by car or bus. With the new bridge, Gottemoeller estimates it would take buses two minutes.

Gottemoeller said the new plan focuses more on the role the bridge will play for bus transportation, which he said the feasibility study, commissioned by Howard Hughes Corp., got wrong.

"They looked at the possibility of bus ridership in a limited way and did a perfunctory rerouting of the existing bus system, which didn't take advantage of what this offered," Gottemoeller said of the study.

Gottemoeller hopes a second study commissioned by Howard County's Office on Transportation, and paid for with $100,000 out of the 2013 capital budget, will take a broader look at the benefits.

John Powell, the administrator for the office, said the economic feasibility study will explore different options for a bridge, including the one presented by Friends of Bridge Columbia, and will take into account the recent boom in development in downtown Columbia. The Office on Transportation, which is in the process of putting the study out for competitive bid, is scheduled to discuss the matter Oct. 14 at a county council work session. After a company is hired to conduct the study, Powell estimates it would take between four to six months to get the findings.

"The purpose of the study is to look at the existing bridge and figure out what it should be," said Powell, who called the existing footbridge a "mess."

"We are completely for improving connectivity between downtown Columbia and Oakland Mills, and we are also certainly supportive of any kind of iconic work that can best represent Columbia. We are positioning to understand what our options are before jumping into the Bridge Columbia option."

However, Powell said widening the bridge to make it accessible for buses is "hard to justify" because of existing bus routes, the width of streets in the neighborhoods throughout Oakland Mills and current ridership numbers.

There also is the issue of funding. Gottemoeller said 80 percent of the project can be funded through grants and other funds that, if secured, would mean the county would only would have to put up approximately $3 million.

"It can be done. It comes down to what the priorities are," Gottemoeller said. "I think the county needs to decide how serious they want to be about moving forward with this."

While county officials and Friends of Bridge Columbia don't agree on everything, they do agree on one thing; the existing bridge has to go.

"That bridge is not inviting. We want something that is inviting," said Powell. "A bridge with improved access needs to get done. To that extent we are in full agreement with the folks from Bridge Columbia. The question that needs to be answered is 'How?'"

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