Bridges don’t parallel the city’s evolution

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Built in mere months, the Bijou Street Viaduct of 1891 solved the problem of vehicular traffic being held up by the many railroads passing through.

Built in mere months, the Bijou Street Viaduct of 1891 solved the problem of vehicular traffic being held up by the many railroads passing through.

In 2007, Colorado Springs made an interesting trade with the Colorado Department of Transportation. CDOT took over control of Powers Boulevard, and the city assumed responsibility for Nevada Avenue, once the principal state-supervised highway through the city.

While the trade had many advantages, giving the city control over a key route through the community’s historic center, there were disadvantages as well. Much of the avenue’s infrastructure had been neglected by CDOT, and repairs were long overdue.

Tandem bridges on Nevada over the Union Pacific tracks between Jackson and Fillmore streets were in particularly bad shape. By 2010, the city had identified the problem — and the solution.

Originally constructed in 1947, much of the steel and concrete structures was still usable. But, according to a city website, “the concrete deck and railings have reached the end of their useful life and are in need of replacement. Holes have formed in the deck, which have required the installation of steel plates. The railings are in poor condition.”

The solution: “completely replace concrete deck and bridge railings using staged construction. The first stage will replace the deck and railings on the northbound structure. The second stage will address the southbound structure. Other project work will include rehabilitation of other portions of the structures, improving pedestrian facilities, landscaping at the south end of the bridge and accommodating future streetcar service.”

Construction finally started in December 2012. Traffic was re-routed through a labyrinth of traffic cones, sending hapless motorists through a confusing roundabout north of the bridge. The northbound bridge was completed in July, and the entire project should be finished by March 2014.

As such projects go, it’s not a big one. Funded by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, its total cost is estimated at $2.4 million. From project planning to completion, four years will have passed. Is that reasonable for such a project?

Looking at the past

It’s interesting to compare today’s leisurely construction schedules with the frenetic pace of the early 1890s, which was a mere 20 years after the city was founded.

By 1891, scores of freight and passenger trains stopped or passed through Colorado Springs every day on the D & RG and Rock Island lines. Such traffic meant that wagons, carriages, horse-drawn trolley cars and pedestrians had to endure long waits to cross the tracks at Bijou Street and at Colorado Avenue, effectively cutting off easy access to Colorado City and points west.

The solution was simple: throw up a couple of soaring iron and steel viaducts that would cross Monument Creek and both railroads.

The Bijou Street Viaduct was started and finished in 1891 for $23,375, or about $600,000 in today’s dollars. The much larger Colorado (then Huerfano) Avenue structure was started in mid-1892 and completed in early 1893. At $56,934.55, it was more than twice as expensive, about $1.4 million in current dollars.

Contemporary photographs show graceful, airy structures that dwarf the Nevada tandem. Such speedy construction was driven by urgency and by industrial technology. Midwestern “bridge and iron” companies offered design/build services, shipping steel trusses and other bridge components nationwide by rail.

The two viaducts remained in service until the great flood of 1935, which damaged or swept away every then-existing bridge over Monument Creek.

Identifying differences

How could our great-grandfathers build so well and so quickly? Conversely, what takes us so long?

For one thing, today’s regulatory framework didn’t exist in 1891. No state, regional or federal agencies had to sign off on the Bijou Street Viaduct. OSHA didn’t protect worker safety, neighbors didn’t have to be informed and mollified, and funding was locally generated.

Traffic safety was a secondary issue. Pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians and horse-drawn vehicles shared the narrow, wooden-planked bridge deck. No one worried about automobiles — after all, it was the 1890s!

By contrast, rebuilding the Nevada Avenue bridges of today has been slowed by regulations, pre-existing conditions and a greatly changed built environment.

For example, the apparently disused railroad spur running beneath the bridges is still in use, serving a lumberyard and Bestway’s materials recovery facility.

“There’s only one train a week,” said city engineer Aaron Egbert, who oversees the project, “but flagmen need to be posted on the tracks and other railroad issues have had to be taken into account (during construction).”

Before construction could begin, project planners had to consider multiple design issues that could affect the North End neighborhood. Access to neighboring businesses and homes had to be maintained during the entire construction period. The structure had to be rebuilt to exacting federal standards, provide safe pedestrian access, retain its historic appearance, require little maintenance and be absolutely safe for all users during its design life.

One side at a time, the North Nevada Avenue railroad bridges have been slowly rebuilt.

One side at a time, the North Nevada Avenue railroad bridges have been slowly rebuilt.

Lessons to be learned

The city’s oldest bridge is a 1902 steel railroad bridge that crosses South Tejon Street between Fountain Boulevard and Mill Street. The Union Pacific still routes trains over the structure, which is due to be replaced in the next few years.

“We expect about 30 years, hopefully more, from this kind of rehabilitation,” said Egbert. “Remember, we didn’t replace the abutments or the steel girders, and those will be ready for replacement by then, when the bridges will have to be completely renewed.”

That will be in 2044, or 97 years after the bridges were first constructed.

Could we learn from our predecessors, and build more quickly and less expensively?

Perhaps, but we might not like it.

Imagine if the city had simply closed both spans for several months and rerouted traffic down Cascade Avenue, saving time and money — but with catastrophic impacts on businesses north of the bridges. Today’s sprawling, dense city is a very different place from the 19th Century boomtown that preceded it.

And we’ve changed as well. We’re more careful, more cautious, less impetuous, and more rule-bound.

The city has grown up — and so have we.

One Response to Bridges don’t parallel the city’s evolution

  1. During and after the recent economic crisis the federal government was offering funds specifically for highway, road and bridge construction and repair. It would appear the City of Colorado Springs did not take advantage of this funding opportunity and shame on our City Council and Mayor. At a very minimum new bridges are required on State Highway 24 East through the City. This road is rudely interrupted by traffic lights near Academy. And while the City may enjoy stalling interstate travelers on this road the interruption does little or nothing for local business and commuter traffic. This City administration seems determined to not help local business.

    Steven Shepard
    January 10, 2014 at 5:33 pm