Pedestrian bridge considered to make crossing the New River safer
The state is quietly considering the idea of building a multimillion-dollar pedestrian bridge over the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale , a proposal that is riling boaters and raising eyebrows among people who don’t see the need.
The bridge would be built near the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel as an alternative to crossing through the tunnel on a narrow sidewalk close to traffic.
The proposal was prompted by a request from Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who called the tunnel sidewalk hazardous for students walking to school. A state transportation spokeswoman said the bridge would allow safer crossing for adults and schoolchildren alike.
Few schoolchildren commute to school through the tunnel, however. A Broward schools spokeswoman said four elementary students live in Victoria Park north of the river but attend Harbordale Elementary a mile south of the river. Because of the tunnel’s narrow sidewalk, they are offered busing.
Since 2012, the City of Fort Lauderdale has approved dozens of projects in its downtown development area, sending cranes and new buildings skyward. As of April 2018, the totals included 17,516 residential units, 1,440 hotel rooms, 4.3 million square feet of office space and 2.8 million square feet…
The Florida Department of Transportation is moving forward with the proposal, though it could be two years before a concrete plan is presented. The next step is completion of a $1.4 million detailed study, FDOT spokeswoman Barbara Kelleher said.
The state and its consultant, T.Y. Lin International , completed an initial evaluation in June last year, reviewing four possible sites, all between Fourth and Ninth avenues near where the tunnel dips under the New River. Kelleher did not disclose the cost for the initial study.
Reaction to the proposal, which has moved forward with little public input, has been lukewarm at best. Some questioned the need for a bridge. Public records show there are more hazardous walking routes to elementary schools in Broward, with some affecting more than 100 children.
Phil Purcell, the CEO and president of Marine Industries Association of South Florida, said the bridge would impede the $8.8 billion marine industry. He said possible designs show that the bridge could encroach on the north side of the river, which boats use to move out of each other’s way.
Instead, Purcell suggested that planners focus on other concerns, such as public transit and traffic on major roads nearby.
“Once we get those things solved, then we can turn to cute little projects that hold no real value,” he said of the pedestrian bridge.
Purcell said pedestrians can access both sides of the river easily from the bridges at Third Avenue and Andrews Avenue.
Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Ben Sorensen, who represents the southern part of downtown, said he’s “unclear as to the demand or the need for this.” The tunnel has a sidewalk with railing to separate people from traffic on its east side, and Sorensen said he sees adults walking or riding bikes through it “all the time.”
FDOT accident data shows 17 pedestrians or bike riders had crashes in the vicinity of the tunnel — mostly on Las Olas Boulevard — from 2010 to 2014.
What would it look like? The state’s report lays out alternatives ranging from building an 80-foot-tall, $24.8 million bridge to digging a new pedestrian tunnel to sending pedestrians across the river on a water trolley. The only option that was ruled out during the study was to rebuild the U.S. 1 tunnel, which would have cost $300 million.
Here is what is being considered:
— Making $470,000 worth of improvements to the existing, free Riverwalk Water Trolley, including upgrading docks and boats. Annual maintenance could cost $306,000.
— Repairing the tunnel to widen the sidewalk and add a pedestrian crossing on the tunnel’s north side. The project could cost $2.3 million, and maintenance could be $30,000 a year.
— Building a new pedestrian tunnel to run parallel with Henry E. Kinney Tunnel, a project estimated at $9.3 million to $10.3 million. The yearly cost of keeping up with it would be cheaper than other options, between $26,500 and $28,500.
Document New River pedestrian bridge: FDOT feasibility study — Building a tall bridge for all boats to pass under — 80 feet above the water. It would cost $24.8 million to build and would be the most expensive to maintain — $9 million a year. The report also looked into building a cheaper type of bridge, which could cost between $4.6 and $7.2 million to build and less than $160,000 a year for maintenance.
— Building a low drawbridge that would need to be raised for tall boats. This option could cost less than $6 million to construct and $1.6 million annually to operate and maintain.
Any bridge built wouldn’t have a ramp because it would take too much space, the report determined. Instead, elevators and stairs on either side would get pedestrians to the walkway — as high as 80 feet above water.
A lower bridge that can be raised would slow marine traffic by 2½ to three minutes while the bridge is lifted, the report said.
Purcell told planners that 15 percent of the boats that regularly travel through that part of the river are so tall they would need to wait for the bridge to be raised.
Who would use it? Spokeswoman Nadine Drew said the Broward school district regularly reviews elementary school walking routes for safety.
Typically, elementary students in a 2-mile radius of the school are required to walk or get their own ride. But if the walking route is determined to be hazardous, and a crossing guard is not provided by the city, the school district will bus the children. That’s the case with the handful of Victoria Park kids who would otherwise have to walk through, she said.
There is a public elementary school in the Victoria Park neighborhood, Virginia Shuman Young Elementary, but it is not zoned as a neighborhood school. The Montessori magnet accepts kids from across Broward.
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Federal laws for disability compliance require sidewalks to be 5 feet wide, and the tunnel sidewalk is less than 4.
The tunnel route is just one of many unsafe elementary school routes identified in a “hazardous walking conditions” report, which shows treacherous routes all over Broward County.
For example, 131 schoolchildren are offered busing to Park Lakes Elementary in Lauderdale Lakes, because their walk to school would require them to cross Commercial Boulevard at State Road 7 without a crossing guard. Some 105 Park Lakes Elementary students face the same problem at Oakland Park Boulevard, the report says.
Kelleher said the state is interested in improving the safety for everyone who wants to cross the river, including any schoolchildren.
Plus, the state found that people living near the tunnel are more likely to walk than the average resident. Five percent more residents within a quarter mile of the tunnel walk to work, compared with other Fort Lauderdale residents, for example. And about a quarter of the 1,251 people living near the tunnel are under 18 or over 65 — both age groups that are more likely to walk than drive, the state report says.
What’s next? The state’s transportation department is hiring a consultant to conduct a $1.4 million Project Development and Environment survey later this year to look further into the alternatives and evaluate how they might affect nearby sites, such as the Stranahan House, a museum and the oldest structure in Broward County.
The state will host a public workshop in late 2019. By the summer of 2020, a location and design will be selected, Kelleher said.
It’s too soon to determine how the bridge would be built and whether it would be similar to the “Accelerated Bridge Construction” method used at Florida International University earlier this year. A pedestrian bridge built at the Miami-Dade campus under a partnership between the school and FDOT collapsed March 15 , killing six.
This isn’t the first time a pedestrian bridge has been considered in the New River area. Fort Lauderdale suggested building a pedestrian bridge to create a “walkable park loop around the New River,” according to a 2003 downtown master plan . Residents south of the river were interested in a pedestrian bridge to get to Las Olas Boulevard. That part of the downtown vision didn’t move forward.
Eugenia Ellis, the president of Riverwalk, said she was consulted during the transportation department’s study and told planners she didn’t think it would be used by schoolchildren. She said the walk to Harbordale Elementary on Southeast 15th Street would be too far for most parents to fathom sending their children.
“I drive through that tunnel, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a child or anyone walking through that tunnel,” she said. “I believe there are very few children that a parent would allow to cross a river and two major roads.”
Brittany Wallman can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4541. Find her on Twitter @BrittanyWallman .