A $500,000 face-lift the city of Waco is planning for the Waco Suspension Bridge next year will just scratch the surface of its needs as the Waco landmark nears its sesquicentennial.
City leaders are tentatively budgeting that amount for the 2017-18 fiscal year to repair rotting wooden decking and some metal components of the bridge.
But according to preliminary findings from a city-commissioned study, city officials need to start planning for the replacement of the entire deck and the system of hanging cables.
The study by Sparks Engineering, which is known for handling historical projects such as the Alamo façade, estimated the total bridge needs at $5.4 million.
“In the next 10 years, we’ll need to talk seriously about more significant structural repair, including the cables,” senior parks planner Tom Balk said. “They’re adequate. We’re not at any risk of catastrophic failure, but they are showing signs of fatigue.”
Balk said Sparks Engineering found the 475-foot bridge more than sturdy enough to handle any reasonable loads. It has been closed to automobile traffic since 1973.
“It’s still more than adequate, but it’s going to continue to age more and more rapidly,” Balk said.
The bridge, opened in 1870, was the first permanent bridge over the Brazos River, helping turn Waco from a frontier outpost of 1,500 people into a commercial crossroads of Texas.
The private Waco Bridge Co., operating under a state charter, raised money from Waco residents to build the bridge for $141,000, using what was then still a novel suspension technology. A New Jersey company, John Roebling & Son, shipped the cables and other components to Texas, but they had to be hauled by oxcart from the nearest railhead in Millican, 90 miles away.
The bridge became a toll-free public bridge in 1889, after a lengthy legal dispute. It continued to serve as a major crossing for north-south traffic for decades, along with the Washington Avenue bridge, built at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1914, the year after a disastrous flood, the city of Waco renovated the bridge, replacing the cables, adding walkways, raising the towers, adding a second arch to the towers and plastering the entire structure with stucco.
Those cables, thicker than the original ones, are still in use today, while the wooden decking has been replaced several times. The most recent major renovations were done in 1980 and 1997.
Balk said the wooden decking is historically accurate, but city officials are discussing the possibility of ultimately replacing it with a light, stamped concrete deck that would be impervious to water.
He said the current design allows water to drain onto the metal structures below the deck, which stay wet for long periods, exposing the metal to oxidation.
But replacing the deck and repairing the structural members beneath won’t be cheap, he said.
“The labor is going to be costly,” Balk said. “To properly support the bridge, it’s going to require two piers placed into the river.”
City Councilman Dillon Meek said he hasn’t analyzed all of the recommendations yet, but he said neglecting the Suspension Bridge is not an option.
“For me, that bridge is an icon of the city, a landmark that has to be preserved and protected,” Meek said. “Something with that kind of historical significance is going to require upkeep. We’re not going to let a landmark like that fall into disrepair.”
Meek said the bridge is a popular backdrop for group photos and even weddings, including his own wedding in January 2016.
“My wife wanted an outdoor location, and we thought it was a beautiful spot,” he said. “Our friends said, ‘Yeah, we get it, we know you like Waco.’ ”