As mayor Christopher Taylor notes, the bridge connecting two Lansdowne neighborhoods ranked dead last on the city’s list of thirty-two possible alternative transportation projects. So why did council budget $450,000 for it in May? “We’re following through on promises,” says the bridge’s chief council advocate, Fourth Ward councilmember Jack Eaton.
When Lansdowne was built in the 1960s and 70s, developer George Airey put three weirs across Malletts Creek between Morehead and Delaware. Airey then built a simple wooden bridge on one of the weirs to allow residents to walk between the two streets. The ponds were deeded to Lans Basin Inc., a company owned by the property owners around the ponds. The bridge was deeded to the city. It provided “a shortcut from Morehead to Delaware, which is otherwise a fairly long walk,” says Morehead resident and Lans Basin president Ken Gottschlich. “Many people walked on and enjoyed it.”
But by 2008 it was obvious that the weirs would need to be replaced–which meant the bridge also had to go: “It was supported by the weir, and the connections were corroding,” Gottschlich explains. So in 2011, the city took it down.
“The city said at the time they would rebuild,” says Gottschlich. “They didn’t promise, but we needed to repair the weir before they could build another bridge. That weir and the other two were repaired last summer. It cost the thirty-five households adjoining the creek $45,000.”
At council’s last budget meeting in May, Eaton moved to allocate the $450,000 from the general fund for a new bridge. Six other councilmembers agreed–only the mayor and three councilmembers opposed it.
Most of the yes votes came from Eaton’s council allies–a group the Observer dubbed the “Back to Basics Caucus” because its members often demand that the city spend less on frills and more on essentials like public safety and sewers. How did a pedestrian bridge make their list of priorities? “People [in the neighborhood] would bring it up every time I ran,” says Eaton, who ran in 2010 and 2012 before being elected in 2013 and is running again in August’s Democratic primary.
“The residents had asked Jack and myself repeatedly,” agrees Graydon Krapohl, the Fourth Ward’s other rep. “They believed there had been a commitment to rebuild the bridge when the city took it down.”
Eaton readily acknowledges the downside. “It’s incredibly expensive. In 2012 the price was $120,000. Now it’s $450,000, which includes $100,000 for the design. But if that’s what it takes to do it, then that’s what we need to do.”
“When I first saw the amendment, I thought the $450,000 was a typo,” says Julie Grand, who voted against the budget change. “I assumed we’d never ask for that much at the last moment. And taking $450,000 out of the general fund was hard to swallow.”
“This year the money was there,” Eaton responds. “Millions of dollars were coming back to the general fund from other funds. This way we were following through without displacing any other projects.”
Mayor Taylor acknowledges that “everybody wants to make residents happy.” But, he says, “I can’t support spending $450,000 on something that ranks so low when we have dozens of quality projects around the city that will integrate existing transportation networks, serve a large number of residents, and be eligible for funding outside the general fund.”
Grand thinks she knows why Eaton put the project on the agenda: “It’s an election year.” But Eaton rejects the notion that it was a pork-barrel campaign move. “If I didn’t do it, Graydon [Krapohl] would have. I’ve had conversations about this with people in that neighborhood for five years. I promised when I first ran in 2010 to replace the bridge.”
“Every decision is ultimately political,” Krapohl concedes. “Jack had a commitment to people in the ward, and he saw an opportunity to get the bridge to the residents. I struggled with the vote, but it was a commitment to the people of my ward. Jack did look to find a way to benefit the folks there. That’s why we all get elected.”
When’s it going to happen? “This year is for the plan,” says Eaton. “Next year is for construction. But it’s not a done deal. It passed this time, but it has to face council two more times: when we hire somebody to design the bridge, and, presuming it passes then, when we select a contractor, that contract will come to us before we spend the money.”
Could council’s decision be reversed? “It could always happen,” says Krapohl.
“The promise was made at the last city council meeting when they committed the money,” says Gottschlich, the neighborhood group president. “But it’s not a done deal until it’s sitting there.”