COLUMBIA — Building a pedestrian overpass is like tuning a piano: There's a right way and there's a wrong way, and if it's done the wrong way, folks aren't going to find it very pleasant.
Locals say the overpass over Providence Road between East Ash and East Worley streets is a shining example of the wrong way, and the city of Columbia has made its replacement a priority. Planning and design are under way, Ted Curtis, project manager for GetAbout Columbia, estimated the new overpass will cost around $1 million and be finished in 2010.
'A waste of airspace'
Calling it "a prime example of a poor design," Curtis said the overpass hasn't been used because it's ugly, because it's inaccessible to people with disabilities and because folks feel uncomfortable when crossing because they're not easily seen from the road.
"It's a waste of airspace," Curtis said. "The plan is to replace it with something that works."
"Overpasses work well if they're inviting, if they're open and people feel safe on them," Curtis said. The Providence overpass is none of the above, he said.
Commissioned by the Columbia Housing Authority, the footbridge was built in 1975 with about $95,000 — equivalent to about $410,000 today — from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and opened 1975. Nine months after its July opening, the Missourian was already running headlines such as "New overpass: a white elephant?" and, two years later, "Concrete controversy."
Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus said the residents of the low-income area frequently cross Providence to pick up basic groceries at the Break Time convenience store and to reach Douglass and Hickman high schools and Douglass Park. The overpass was built to help them cross the thoroughfare safely, Steinhaus said.
Today, the chain-link cage covering the overpass has rusted, litter lines its narrow walkway and random graffiti colors its raw gray sides. Those who try to enter from the sidewalk adjacent to Providence Road in the east are blocked by a chain-link fence across Douglass High School property and on both sides, those pedestrians who manage to enter the walkway are confronted with a dark twist of concrete steps.
Pedestrians, such as Courtney Jordan, said they tend to choose an alternate route. Jordan, 15, strolled across Providence Road a few yards from the overpass on his way home from Douglass High School on Friday. He said he avoided the 34-year-old footbridge because it felt "like it's gonna come down."
Stephanie Jones, 25, and her 5-year-old son, Trevionne Gardener, also cut across Providence Road on Friday afternoon. Jones said she found crossing that busy stretch of Providence easier than using the overpass because she has a bad knee and can't go up the stairs.
Both Jones and Jordan said they'd use a newer, more convenient pedestrian bridge.
Residents walking east on the walkway land inside Douglass High's schoolyard. They then must walk half a block to escape the fenced area and join the main sidewalk.
"I seldom see the overpass being used," Douglass High Principal Brian Gaub said. "It does not appear to be at an ideal location.
"The opinion I've most often heard expressed is that a well-marked crosswalk at an intersection would be more practical," he said.
'A welcome invitation'
It's possible to make a pedestrian overpass folks will enjoy using, Curtis said. He pointed to the popular overpass across College Avenue south of Rollins Street as an example of what he would like the new Providence overpass to be.
The College Avenue overpass cost around $4.2 million and was completed in August 2004. There, a wide network of sweeping ramps and well-placed stairs lead into a wide, covered structure surrounded by airy fenced walls. Like the proposed Providence overpass, it's easily accessed by cyclists, wheelchair users and pedestrians alike.
"The approaches are long and very attractive so it doesn't look like you have this huge climb," Curtis said. "It's open; there's no feeling of being hidden away where you might not be secure.
Curtis said the appealing overpass invites pedestrians to use it and avoid darting across the street below.
Curtis said that appeal was in direct opposition to the situation at the Providence Road overpass, which, despite being one of the first things motorists see when heading downtown or to the campus area, "Says 'this is no-man's land, don't come here' instead of 'this is a welcome invitation, come try it.'"
Curtis said that a contractor — URS Corp. of St. Louis — has been selected for the Providence project and that preliminary design work will begin in March. The project will not be ready for public comment until this summer, Curtis said.
The bridge is now owned by the Columbia Housing Authority, Steinhaus said. The city will need the approval of the housing authority's board of directors before it can replace the overpass.
Steinhaus said the housing authority would "be happy to explore options with the city about how to improve pedestrian crossings on Providence Road."
Steinhaus also called for more pedestrian crossings throughout the low-income areas between Ash Street and Business Loop 70 and said an improved walkway would be just part of the solution.
"Regardless of how this is redesigned, there needs to be multiple crosswalks and other traffic-calming devices across Providence," Steinhaus said.
The City Council has made the overpass a GetAbout Columbia priority, Curtis said, but the project will still require the council's final approval before construction can begin.