- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

WACO, Texas (AP) - Crossing the narrow footbridge over Interstate 35 at South Eighth Street can be a startling experience, like walking on a log over a roaring cataract of cars and trucks.

But for Hannah Foster, it’s just the daily commute to class.

The Waco Tribune-Herald (http://bit.ly/2j7JWO4 ) reports the college sophomore uses the shortcut several times a day between Baylor University and West Campus Lofts, where she lives and works as a leasing agent. She said it has allowed her to ditch campus parking permits that cost hundreds of dollars per semester.

“Most people don’t drive at Baylor because they’re taking away student parking,” she said. “I had a parking permit my freshman year, but there was never any parking, and it was pointless to pay for something I wasn’t able to find.”

So Foster was distressed to hear that the pedestrian bridge will soon be history, a casualty of the $433 million project to widen and rebuild I-35 through Waco. Work is tentatively expected to begin in 2019 if funding can be secured.

Plans for the I-35 project drafted in 2010 called for the removal of the bridge. Texas Department of Transportation officials said the connection was little-used, and modern handicap-accessibility regulations would make it prohibitively expensive to rebuild.

After consultation with city and Baylor officials, designers removed the bridge while adding improved pedestrian crossings at the rebuilt Fourth-Fifth Street and 11th Street bridges.

But a lot has changed since 2010. In the past two years, the downtown side of I-35 has been transformed from a sparse neighborhood of old frame homes to a hotspot of restaurants and student housing, with hotels to come in the near future.

Now Panera Bread, Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, and Chick-Fil-A lie at the base of the footbridge. Within two blocks are the Tinsley Place apartments, with about 400 tenants, and the 128-bed West Campus Lofts.

“It’s only going to get more developed,” Foster said. “That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea to take it away.”

Dustin Flores, assistant leasing manager at the complex, said the perception that the bridge is underused is out of date. Students from Baylor dorms use it to get to restaurants, and West Campus Loft tenants rely on it heavily, he said.

“We know, because we can see kids walking across it all day,” he said in his office at 805 S. Eighth St. “That bridge is a big perk for us, leasing-wise. I probably use it twice a week, to walk to the post office or Commons Grounds.”

Jonathan Garza, an agent for Lucra Real Estate, which owns Tinsley Place, said the footbridge removal is less of an issue there because fewer of the tenants are Baylor undergraduates.

City of Waco officials have been discussing the pedestrian bridge dilemma, but no clear solution is in sight.

Mayor Kyle Deaver asked about the footbridge at a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board, which sets priorities for state-funded transportation projects in Greater Waco. TxDOT Waco district officials said the bridge has had little traffic, and building a new one in conformance with the Americans with Disabilities Act would require elevators or very long ramps.

TxDOT district engineer Bobby Littlefield did not have a cost estimate for such a project, and he said TxDOT has moved away from building pedestrian overpasses on freeways.

However, he said the overall connectivity between Baylor and downtown should improve with lighting and bike-and-pedestrian pathways under the new bridge at Fourth and Fifth Street and at the 11th Street bridge, which will become an underpass instead of an overpass.

But even with those improvements, walking distances would be significantly longer for some Baylor students. For example, the walk from West Campus Lofts to Common Grounds coffee house would increase from 1,340 feet via the footbridge to 3,329 feet via Fifth Street, and pedestrians would have to cross the frontage roads.

In an interview, MPO director Chris Evilia said the loss of the footbridge amid the current development boom is unfortunate, and it might be possible to replace it sometime in the future.

“Right now, we do see more activity from Baylor students since we’re starting to see more housing built catering to students over there and more businesses,” he said. “Maybe this is something the MPO looks at as a separate stand-alone that we’d have to pay for with other funds.”

Jodi Wheatley, a Waco TxDOT spokeswoman, said local officials looked at several options for replacing the footbridge, which dates back to 1966.

“Replacing the bridge with a tunnel was discussed, but Baylor and the city both were concerned about safety issues created by having such a hidden area where students would be walking,” she said.

Reagan Ramsower, senior vice president and chief operations officer at Baylor, said replacing the footbridge may not be an option. But he said the need for pedestrian connections between Baylor and downtown is much greater than when the interstate project was designed in 2010.

“In 2010, we did not dream of a stadium on Interstate 35, and the kind of development that has occurred since then has been astounding and great,” he said. “To see all the retail establishments and student apartment complexes there - none of that was even dreamed of in 2010… . A strong, easy connection between Baylor and those restaurants and complexes is really essential.”

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Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com

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