Downtown tax district officials have approved spending $5.5 million on the Suspension Bridge after getting a close look at why the 147-year-old Waco icon needs a complete overhaul.
The bridge project is the most expensive item in an $8.9 million bond package the TIF board recommended Thursday, a package that also includes new sidewalks and Interstate 35 underpass lighting.
On a tour Thursday morning, members of the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board ducked into the anchor houses of the bridge to see crumbling brick, deeply rusted anchor ties and steel cables distorted by more than a century of tension.
City parks planner Tom Balk, who led the tour, said a comprehensive study of the bridge this year brought some sobering news.
“There was some surprise to us that the cables, being about 100 years old, have about a 10-year life span remaining,” Balk told the board. “There is some evidence of a slight sag in the middle, and while that’s not a safety concern at this time, it does support the hypothesis that these cables are ready for replacement.”
Now city officials are proposing the biggest renovation to the bridge since 1914, when it got new cables, taller towers and steel girders. And they are now proposing to do it all at once instead of phasing the work over a decade, as they originally proposed.
Balk said that with upfront funding, the project could start in early 2019 and wrap up within a year or two, while phasing it would tie up the Suspension Bridge for years and interfere with public events. The all-at-once approach could save money because of bulk pricing and lower mobilization costs, he said. It would also keep the parks department from having to maintain components that are due to be replaced.
The project involves removing the wooden deck, which is becoming dilapidated and causing water to linger on the steel structure below, and replacing it with another material, such as concrete or composite planks.
“The wooden decking continues to deteriorate at an increasing rate,” he said.
It would also repair deep cracks in the stucco tower, which was built in 1914 to encase the original brick tower.
Board members endorsed the project, though some initially suggested the city of Waco should help pay for it through general funds.
“It initially struck me that this is Waco’s most iconic structure, and maybe it ought to be jointly funded with TIF and city funds,” TIF board Chairman Wes Filer said.
He suggested that the city pay the interest on the 14-year bonds for the project.
After discussion with city staff, Filer and other members agreed to fund the full project if necessary, but with the understanding that the city might help with the project. City Manager Dale Fisseler said he is expecting the city to return millions of dollars from another TIF-funded project that is under budget, the cleanup of the Brazos riverfront.
The city will add the TIF-funded bond projects to its $70 million package of certificates of obligation that it plans to issue next spring. Certificates of obligation are repaid through normal revenue and do not require voter approval.
The $8.9 million bonds also include $1.3 million for sidewalk improvements on Webster Avenue and $2.1 million for decorative lighting for four Interstate 35 underpasses in downtown.
The Texas Department of Transportation is preparing next year to begin construction on a $300 million project to widen Interstate 35 through Waco and replace bridges.
“We have a rare and sensitive window to do something really cool and piggyback on TxDOT’s project,” city planner Chelsea Phlegar told the TIF board Thursday.
The project would add LED lighting to columns at underpasses at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, University Parks Drive, Fourth and Fifth streets and 11th and 12th streets.
At the Fourth and Fifth Street overpass, eight steel-framed globes would hang like chandeliers and cast patterned shadows on the concrete above and below.
Phlegar said it is a cost-effective way to bring a welcoming atmosphere to what is otherwise a barren stretch of concrete.
“It’s a way to fill the space without filling the space,” she said.