Around two dozen people dropped by the Bridge Performing Arts Initiative on Wednesday to view three options to replace the deteriorating Belmont Bridge.

Two “enhanced” bridge options commissioned by the city are competing with a scenario to go underneath the railroad tracks to carry Route 20 past the eastern side of downtown Charlottesville.

The City Council is expected to make a decision after a June 16 public hearing. Councilors directed city staff to develop an “enhanced” bridge last September after members of the public said they would not support the initial replacement bridge created by MMM Design.

At that time, the council also left open the option of building an underpass that had been developed by the firm Siteworks and architect Jim Rounsevell.

Under both enhanced bridge options, the bridge’s length would be half of the length of the existing structure. Both bridge concepts would be restricted to one 11-foot travel lane in each direction, freeing up space for 15-foot sidewalks and two 10-foot bike areas. In one of the options, an arch would rise above the bridge deck to create a visual gateway feature.

“The public wanted to see something that was much nicer than the VDOT standard,” said Wiley Cooke, an engineer with MMM Design.

The underpass would require construction of three 66-foot bridges to carry Old Avon Street, Water Street and the CSX railroad tracks over Route 20.

During his presentation, Rounsevell said the vision of the underpass is more important at this point than determining the width of sidewalks and bike lanes.

“The public has reiterated that a better pedestrian experience is their most important concern,” Rounsevell said. “People don’t want to walk along next to vehicles and people want to get directly to the mall.”

Underpass concept (Credit: Nicolas Wehncke, RVARQ

Rounsevell said the underpass would put pedestrians first, and that removing the bridge would help connect the community and create open space. He also recommends shifting most foot traffic to a new pedestrian-only bridge.

“This is a gateway moment and an opportunity to transcend a 50-year-old barrier,” Rounsevell said. “This is not about cars.”

The road carries about 14,000 vehicles a day and that number is expected to increase to 18,000 by the design year — the year of final construction plus 20 years. Joe Schinstock, a consultant working with MMM Design, said that compares to about 900 pedestrians a day.

MMM has hired the firm Barton Malow to develop cost estimates for the three options.

The non-arch enhanced bridge would cost $16.4 million, and the arch bridge would be nearly $18 million.

Last September, Barton Malow calculated the cost estimate for the underpass at be $27.3 million. That includes contingencies for unknown factors, such as whether the project would encounter any rock.

Rounsevell has challenged that amount for being too high, but was unable to meet with Barton Malow’s staff to provide new information. That will occur in advance of the next public meeting on May 8.

Rounsevell said using a design-build process could help bring down the costs.

Barton Malow has not estimated the additional cost of the pedestrian bridge in Rounsevell’s plan.

Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services, said the $14.6 million allocated to the project by the Commonwealth Transportation Board does not include local money but that could change.

“At a point they’ll say if we want to do something else, we’ll have to come up with the money,” Tolbert said. “Until we take an option to them, we don’t know what they’ll fund.”

Enhanced bridge option (Credit: MMM Design)

All three scenarios must not disrupt operations by the railroad. Records from the Federal Railway Administration show that an average of 14 trains pass the area daily.

Traffic would be detoured during all three of the options during construction

Members of the public were able to ask clarifying questions but were not able to give a public comment during the meeting. For instance, would lights on the bridge conform to the city’s dark skies ordinance?

“I worry that the bridge could be a glowing distraction,” said one man.

“We think that the lighting for this is going to be very cool,” Rounsevell said about the underpass. “Because the pedestrian bridge would be like a sculpture, it would be lit appropriately.”

MMM engineers said lights in their option would conform and would point downwards, not up.

In response to questions about whether the bridge option would cost more money to maintain, Tolbert said he would have more information before the next meeting.

Another person asked how soon it would be before the project goes to construction.

Arch bridge concept for Belmont Bridge replacement (Credit: MMM Design)

Tolbert said that depends on the council giving a direction on which way to go.

“If they go with a bridge, it could be ready to bid in a year,” Tolbert said. “If an underpass, we would need to go through engineering because none has been done plus we believe it will trigger a full-scale environmental review.”

Rounsevell said the city should take that extra time to get the planning right.

“This is an important decision as it was to close off downtown to pedestrians,” Rounsevell said. “We’re talking about the next 50 to a hundred years. If it takes another five or six years to plan, that’s a short-term consideration.”

However, he also joked that that depended on the structural integrity of the existing bridge holding up.