Downtown development officials hope an engineering study will help them win a grant to transform the abandoned Cotton Belt railroad bridge into a recreation destination.

The Public Improvement District No. 1 board on Monday approved spending $62,000 for a structural engineering evaluation on the 111-year-old steel truss bridge.

Rick and Lisa Sheldon two years ago donated the bridge to City Center Waco with the idea of turning it into a connector between the east and west river trails. City Center Waco has shared the Sheldons’ vision of widening the bridge and using it as a landscaped public space where visitors could eat, sightsee or attend events.

Consulting engineers with CP&Y have guessed such a project would cost $4 million to $5 million, but the study will help firm up the real cost, said Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco.

“The design can’t proceed until we have the engineering testing done,” she said. “Our engineering firm has walked out and assessed that it’s in great shape, but we need individual tests, not only for structural capacity but also for recommendation on lead paint removal.”

She said removing the flaking lead paint could cost more than $1 million, but she has reason to hope it could be much less.

Newspaper articles from the time of the bridge’s construction boast that it was designed for loads of up to 5,000 pounds per linear foot. But Henderson said a jostling crowd could strain the bridge in different ways than a moving train.

Henderson said she hopes to have the work done by early summer so the bridge will be ready for an October application deadline for a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant. She said she expected the city of Waco would apply for the grant and ultimately take control over it once the paint is remediated.

Melvin Lipsitz, a Public Improvement District board member who owns property along Mary Avenue, said the bridge will help lead visitors from that booming area to the new eastside river trail.

The Public Improvement District board consists of downtown property owners, who pay a 10-cent surcharge on their property tax rate to fund security, maintenance and other extra downtown services.

Waco senior park planner Tom Balk said the PID’s embrace of the bridge project will help it move forward.

“This is a critical moment,” he said. “I’m glad they were successful at making that happen.”

He said the city needs to do some additional engineering work to figure out the best way to link the bridge to the eastside river trail, while maintaining wheelchair accessibility. But he said the completion last fall of the eastside trail proved that there’s demand for such a project.

“With each passing month, we’re seeing increasing interest in that area,” he said.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

Recommended for you