Who knew an image could disrupt years of planning?
That’s the situation the city of Durango found itself in when a rendering of a proposed multimillion dollar pedestrian bridge over the Animas River at 32nd Street found its way into the public discourse.
The proposal has split City Council and drawn intense criticism from some residents who say the $4.1 million structure is unnecessary, over-built and out of character with its surroundings. Public dissent boiled over last month when a rough rendering depicting the height of the proposed bridge was made public, prompting dozens of comments to City Council and letters to the editor of The Durango Herald.
“I have yet to ascertain one compelling reason to waste taxpayers’ money on something so unnecessary and unattractive,” wrote Candace Alburn in a letter to the Herald.
“I see the bridge contributing to the quality of life and expanding the community connectivity,” wrote Janet Wiley, another letter writer. “This structural skywalk can be elegant and artful.”
Proponents say the bridge would create seamless connectivity for trail users, who would be able to walk, bike or skate 8 miles from the south side of town near Home Depot north to Oxbow Park and Preserve without having to cross a single road. Connectivity and safety have been the guiding principle of the Animas River Trail for decades, said Mayor Melissa Youssef.
Opponents say both the price tag and the span of the bridge across the river are too high. The proposed walkway – designed to cross the Animas River, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks and east 32nd Street – is out of character with other bridges on the Animas River Trail, said City Councilor Kim Baxter. The design is counterintuitive and may not be used as intended, she said.
City staff, in response, plan to provide information and seek feedback at four public meetings this month. A new rendering of the design is expected to be revealed this month. City Council also plans to reconsider the project at a regular meeting in March.
Spanning the decadesConstruction of the Animas River Trail began in the 1970s and, piece by piece, has grown into what it is today, said Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz.
It wasn’t until 1999 when Durango voters approved a half-cent sales tax for “construction, operations or maintenance of recreation facilities, parks, trails, pedestrian and bicycle improvements ...” that the city was able to connect large sections of the trail to give it seamless connectivity.
The Parks, Open Space and Trails master plan approved in 2001 called for doing away with at-grade street crossings on the Animas River Trail, meaning the trail would never cross any roads without an underpass or overpass. The city has since spent about $22 million to create a contiguous trail, Youssef said, including 10 or so bridges and three underpasses.
“It’s a massive asset,” she said.
Animas River Trail bridges
Several bridges help make up the Animas River Trail, but none cross roads; rather, they cross the Animas River and ditches. Here is a look at existing bridges, from south to north.
The trail now passes under four roads – Main Avenue, the Ninth Street Bridge, U.S. Highway 160 near DoubleTree Hotel and twice under South Camino del Rio – but there are no overpasses. Instead, bridges are used to cross the Animas River or drainage ditches.
Plans to connect the Animas River Trail to Oxbow Park and Preserve have been in the works since the mid-2000s, Metz said. The proposal gained traction in 2012, when the city purchased 44 acres at Oxbow Park and Preserve at a cost of $1.2 million, she said.
“There were a lot of alignments considered,” Metz said. “If you really focus in on 32nd Street – what can we do to go over it or under it?”
Over the river, under the bridgeDesigns to connect the trail from its terminus near 32nd Street to the Oxbow nature preserve have not always included a massive structure over the river, railroad tracks and 32nd Street as planned today.
Parks and Recreation staff has worked for years with state officials, Durango resident advisory boards and community members on a number of potential solutions to extend the trail north. Metz said plans to extend the trail north formulated sometime around 2008.
City staff first looked at what it might cost to build an underpass at 32nd Street, Metz said. But a number of factors restrict an underpass, she said.
The 32nd Street bridge, which crosses the Animas River, is too low to accommodate a trail, she said. Doing so would require the 32nd Street bridge to be rebuild at a higher elevation. Without raising the bridge, the trail would have to be built so low that it would often be inundated with water from the river, even if contractors installed a concrete barrier along the river’s edge, Metz said.
Constructing an underpass on the east side of the river would require the city to purchase or condemn private property. “The city has never condemned land for Animas River Trail,” Metz said.
“What’s the other option?” she said. “If we can’t go under, then we’ve got to go over.”
Over, over and over againThe existing trail ends on the east side of the river south of 32nd Street and the extension north picks up on the west side of the river north of 32nd Street. Since the city can’t go under the 32nd Street bridge, Parks and Rec began thinking about two bridges: one over the river and a second over 32nd Street.
“We had looked at a bridge around 30th Street that would leave Memorial Park, cross over to the other side of the river with a bridge and then come up to 32nd Street and do a second bridge,” Metz said.
But constructing two bridges would require trail users to cross the railroad tracks on the west side of the river. In 2016, the Public Utilities Commission – which manages railroad crossing across Colorado – ruled the city can’t build any new at-grade crossings over railroad tracks, Metz said.
The city then had a familiar decision to make – go over the tracks or go under them. And with a plan already settled to go over 32nd Street, the city designed the current plan: a structure that spans the river, the railroad tracks and 32nd Street. City Council approved spending $3.4 million to construct an L-shaped bridge to connect Memorial Park to Animas City Park.
The city proposed a third spur for the bridge last year, making a T-shape that would allow trail users to exit or enter the raised path south of 32nd Street behind north City Market, bringing the total cost of the project to an estimated $4.1 million.
Complication and contentionIn April 2019, Durango voters elected two new city councilors: Baxter and Barbara Noseworthy. Within months, the councilors began questioning the size, cost and functionality of the proposed bridge. Youssef at the time called the project “overkill.”
But almost a year later, Youssef in an interview this week with the Herald said she’s “in a position of not taking a stance.”
“We have a public process. My decision is not made up,” she said. “I listen to the people of Durango.”
Of the 40 or so emails sent to City Council about the bridge, Baxter said “there are four that have been pro (building the bridge).”
It’s not that she’s against connecting the Animas River Trail to Oxbow Park and Preserve, Baxter said. Rather, she is making a “request to step back.”
“What can we do to 32nd Street to make it safe and make these crossings safe, instead of or as an alternative conversation – and to look at what is the best option?” she said.
Great Outdoors Colorado awarded the city a $1.4 million grant for the project to extend the Animas River Trail north – $400,000 of which is dedicated specifically to building the pedestrian bridge, Baxter said. The city could ask GOCO to extend its funding as the city goes through a public process to determine whether the bridge is wanted, Youssef said.
“Delaying the project is an option,” the mayor said. “We can get an extension to actively work through this design phase and try to get to a solution that meets the needs of the community.
“We’re going to vet this project and listen to the people,” Youssef said.