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Take the opportunity to update bridge railing

BY JEAN WALKER - GUEST OPINION | JUNE 19, 2009 7:21 AM

If $54,500 could prevent the potential of a toddler falling from a pedestrian bridge onto a heavily trafficked road, do you think it would be worth spending? Or a dog dangling from a leash over that road?

There is an urgent safety issue with the connected pedestrian bridges over Riverside Drive at Burlington Street and over Grand Avenue. The bridges’ railings were built more than 40 years ago and are not safe. As opposed to the pedestrian bridge over Riverside Drive at Newton Road, these bridges have only three horizontal rails and the lowest rails are 12 1/2 inches above the surfaces of the bridges. The upper rails are 11 inches apart. The current spaces are ones through which a small child or dog could easily slip and fall onto either Riverside Drive, a major thoroughfare with many trucks, or Grand Avenue, a major city arterial.

Also, the bridge over Riverside Drive spirals out over the bank of the Iowa River right beside the dam. A slip or fall (especially under icy conditions) could result in a person landing in the river and caught in the dam. This bridge is used by many citizens of Iowa City, including students, faculty, and staff of the UI, some of whom ride their bikes up and down the spiral (even though there is a largely ignored sign that says to walk your bike there).

Currently, the bridges’ decks are being resurfaced, so the railings have been removed. This project is being funded 50 percent by the Department of Transportation, 25 percent by the city of Iowa City, and 25 percent by the UI. The project was bid two ways. $580,000 involves reusing the existing railing. For an additional $218,000 a new, safety-coded railing would be included. Both the DOT and the city were willing to provide funds for the new railing, but the UI, citing lack of funds (its share would be $54,500) declined, thus condemning the safety upgrade. I am aware that last year’s floods and the subsequent damage to the campus is a huge drain on the university’s funds; however, compared to the school’s annual budget and holdings, I am surprised that the UI would not take this opportunity to guard the safety of its students, employees, and the general public. Iowa City has also had to make budget cuts but still was willing to fund the new railing. I am also disappointed that the UI did not partner with the city to take advantage of the matching funds from the DOT for this upgrade.

In addition, I am surprised that any of these entities would allow such a dangerous railing to be placed back on the renovated bridges. If a homeowner were to make renovations in her or his home that, for example, involved moving out-of-code wiring, the homeowner would be required by the city to update the wiring. In a home, relatively few people would be exposed to out-of-code materials, but the pedestrian bridges are used by many, many people every day and thus have increased risk.

The project is scheduled to be finished before the students return for the fall semester, and there are some arguments that there would not be time to fabricate and install the new safer railing before that time. I would argue that safety trumps expediency. Currently a temporary crossing of Riverside Drive, with pedestrian crossing lights, has been installed, and using this crossing a little longer would allow the project to be completed with the safer railing.

If the UI can’t find $54,500 for this safety issue, is there any other entity that can pick up the slack? Can a cost-lowering compromise be made in the design? If all else fails, can a new, cheaper structure be added to the old railing to make it safe? Whatever the solution, immediate action needs to be taken or we will be left with a disaster waiting to happen that could have been avoided.

Jean Walker lives in Iowa City.


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