A Sister Bridge

Bicyclists, Peds to Have Own Path Across River

The proposed "sister bridge" is designed to facilitate bike and foot traffic from the bridge to other points, including Fifth Street, Toomey Road, Lee Barton Drive, Barton Springs Road, and Riverside Drive.

When Girard Kinney was a kid growing up in Austin, he would while away his afternoons with a fishing pole under the Lamar Bridge, where he'd scramble up the concrete support beams to fish from the wide arches that span the Colorado River. Today, Kinney, who owns a local architecture firm, still considers the Lamar Bridge a special place. But instead of climbing the underside of the bridge to find that perfect fishing spot, Kinney has been hired by the city to design a nearby sister bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians. Last month, city officials held a special work session and invited local architects, engineers, and citizens to brainstorm ideas for a separate, safer path for Austin's growing number of bicyclists and pedestrians. "Our primary focus here has to be the commuters," says Kinney. "The bridge will be a lot faster, safer, easier, and a lot more pleasant."

The bike-ped bridge will be built parallel to and about 150 to 275 feet east of the existing Lamar bridge. Plans call for the river crossing to provide access to and from various points surrounding the bridge. People driving north on the existing Lamar bridge will be able to look toward downtown and the see the foot bridge at eye level.

Kinney and city officials say one of the main attractions of the new bridge will be the full view of the Lamar bridge, which often goes overlooked except by boaters and those who use the riverside trails. The bicycle-pedestrian bridge will feature designated sections where people can stand and gaze out onto the water. Kinney said he hopes it will become a meeting place, away from the constant roar of traffic and fumes of Lamar Blvd. "Maybe people will come out with an easel and paint, fish off the bridge, or walk down to the water," Kinney says. "We're talking about all the things the Lamar bridge can be. It will no longer be just a conveyance of people, but a place in itself. Hopefully it will become a destination."

Hazards like this will be a thing of the past if city planners get their way — pedestrians and cyclists would get their own bridge over the river, next to the Lamar bridge.
photograph by John Anderson

Although no specific plans have been drafted, city officials were expected to present four prospective designs to City Council for consideration on Wednesday, June 10. But though nothing is set in concrete, Kinney said, there are a couple of basic ideas he and the city will be looking for in all four designs, including the length of the bridge - 600 feet - and the ability for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross Cesar Chavez Street without having to worry about traffic. All four plans are designed to facilitate bike and foot traffic from the bridge all the way to Fifth Street, with easy access from Toomey Road, Lee Barton Drive, Barton Springs Road, and Riverside Drive, Kinney said.

Richard Kroger, project manager in the city's Public Works and Transportation Department, said the city has about $7 million to spend on the bridge. The funding dates back to a 1984 bond election that provided for arterial roadway improvements. This is the same pool of money that is also funding the future Barton Springs Road renovation (see "Bumpy Road," Vol. 17, No.36), which will either install a center turn lane or a series of raised medians. The city has also obtained over $950,000 in federal funds through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which provides grants to cities for special roadway enhancement projects.

Although many bicyclists and pedestrians who use the bridge said they would welcome their own pathway over the river, others said the city should first focus on the existing bridge itself. Michael Issa, who is a regular jogger on the hike and bike trail, said the city's first priority should be alleviating the traffic headache on Lamar before it worries about bicyclists and pedestrians.

"I don't think them spending money on a bridge for pedestrians and bikers is money well spent," said Issa. "Why don't they try to widen the lanes or do something else for the cars because the traffic here on Lamar is just terrible. I think that by itself would ease up the car traffic and make room for pedestrians and bikers at the same time."

Kroger said the 1984 bond proposal called for a pedestrian-bicycle bridge, even though traffic wasn't as bad 12 years ago as it now is. There also was debate back then about widening the bridge, but the city backed off when it realized a wider bridge would do nothing for the congested intersections at Fifth and Sixth streets.

A longtime transportation fixture in Austin, the Lamar Bridge was built in 1941 and 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project for about $300,000. It was under construction at the onslaught of World War II, and was later designated as part of the wartime military highway network, which allowed its builders, Cage Brothers and L.A. Turner of Bastrop, to obtain the extra steel for the bridge's completion.

Because its late art deco style structure has been maintained and is still completely intact, the Texas Historical Commission named the bridge a historic site in 1994. It is also the last remaining bridge of this architectural style in the state highway system that has not been modified, looking pretty much the way it did when Girard Kinney used to fish there as a kid.

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