Oregon Street bridge renderings released as refurbishing gains favor

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The great bridge debate in Oshkosh may be ending with a whimper, but it may not really. And it may not matter.

A consensus seems to be emerging at City Hall that refurbishing the Oregon-Jackson Street bridge might be the best option for Oshkosh. “I think refurbishment probably makes the most sense,” said Mayor Steve Cummings.

This view was echoed by two other council members, Lori Palmeri and Debra Allison-Aasby, although this opinion is not universally held. Caroline Panske said she is leaning toward a high-level “flyover” replacement but is also looking forward to more public input.

Three other council members who were asked to weigh in did not respond immediately.

The advantage of refurbishment is that it keeps the cost of operating and maintaining the bridge in the hands of the state, at least for now.  The disadvantages include a low river clearance, which necessitates more frequent openings, and an inability to build a pathway underneath the bridge approaches, which will interrupt a smooth flow for bikers and pedestrians on the Riverwalk.

A variety of city boards and commissions have reviewed the alternatives for dealing with the substandard structure and most of them have come out in favor of one of two alternatives to refurbishing: the $14 million fixed-height span that Panske referenced or a $34 million drawbridge.

The way the Department of Transportation looks at it, an Oregon Street bridge replacement will have pretty much the same profile whether it continues in drawbridge mode or is redesigned as a flyover span. But council members were not so sure, and so DOT was asked to put together some photo illustrations that depict from both the north and south shores of the Fox River what the replacement bridge may look like.

The images, released earlier this month, may understate the differences between the two alternatives, said Peter Lang, one of the partners in the $55 million Morgan District project. He and his partners would like to transform the old Morgan Door factory site, just north of the bridge, into an upscale residential and commercial development.

(DOT photo illustrations above compare the view of the drawbridge, left, and the flyover bridge, right, from the Morgan District site. Click to enlarge.)

From their perspective, a replacement for the existing low-profile bridge could interfere with views from their main building and make it more difficult to lease.

“I am frustrated because I think the impact of the bridge is minimized” in DOT’s photo illustrations, Lang said. “In my opinion, the scale and structure of the representation will not match the installation.” He compared the photo illustrations with earlier engineering drawings and concluded that the new bridge will be much higher than what is depicted on the latest DOT renderings.

One of the co-owners of Becket’s restaurant, just south of the bridge on the downtown side of the Fox River, shares Lang’s concerns. “In my opinion, the flyover bridge option is not in keeping with the scale and overall feel of our downtown,” said Kris Larson.  “A bridge that size is fine on a highway, but is not a good fit for the historic nature of our central city.”

DOT cautioned against doing the kind of analysis that Lang performed on the photo illustrations because they are not based on verified survey data and and are not intended to depict the final bridge structures in detail.

“The renderings for the fixed and movable options were developed with the primary objective of contrasting the relative scale and overall dimensions of these two structures at the existing site in order to compare the ‘least obtrusive’ fixed bridge to a typical replacement movable bridge,” DOT’s design consultants said in a prepared statement.

The consultants went on to say that “either bridge elevation may vary from those shown given actual survey measurements and site conditions and this may present larger retaining walls than shown in the images for either or both alternatives.”

Even those council members who are leaning toward refurbishing the existing structure acknowledge that there are still a lot of open questions, not all of which will be resolved by the time the council takes a vote.

“What we are waiting to see is a really good financial analysis,” Cummings said. That analysis will likely make the financial case for refurbishment if it shows rising costs coming to the city once it takes ownership of a replacement bridge. A refurbished bridge would continue to belong to the state, which would continue to pay to operate and maintain it.

The mayor’s concern is that “the state or the DOT will change their mind,” he said. “There is no guarantee with any of this.” If that happens, the city could wind up with a low bridge that doesn’t accommodate bikes and pedestrians and still have to pay for operating it.

Another factor to consider, Palmeri said, is changing technology, which could lower the cost of bridge operations within the next few decades. Self-driving cars, the use of drones or even flying vehicles could change how citizens get around town in ways that are hard to foresee.

She says the rehabilitation option would allow the city to see how these changes play out. But she remains concerned about making sure that refurbishment of the existing span includes “amenities” to improve pedestrian and bike access.

“It’s a tough call to make,” said Allison-Aasby. She noted that the city has a reputation for putting off needed infrastructure repairs only to realize later this this can be a costly mistake as expenses rise over time.

“Is it going to be 30, 40 years from now and someone is going to say, “Boy, the council really blew it–they should have taken care of it then’?” Allison–Aasby asked.

Council members are also keenly aware that their role is purely advisory and that DOT is perfectly free to ignore whatever recommendation that city may make.

Throughout the planning process, DOT staffers have been “very cordial and very informative,” Allison-Aasby said. But they have also made clear that “at the end of the day it’s [DOT’s] decision.”

Oshkosh Independent photo montage shows how flyover bridge from the south shore would match with a drawbridge from the north shore.

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Miles Maguire

Miles Maguire is the author of Advanced Reporting: Essential Skills for 21st Century Journalism. He was the founding editor of the Oshkosh Community News Network, a nonprofit online news organization whose work was cited as a notable innovation in journalism in the 2005 Knight-Batten Awards. Send questions, comments and suggestions to miles.maguire@yahoo.com.

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