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November 14, 2009

Railroad bridge could become trail walkway

Brian Sharp
Staff writer

From 200 feet above the Genesee River gorge, the abandoned railroad bridge offers spectacular views and some uncertain footing.

The 700-foot span, just north of Smith Street, came to the city as part of a $1 million-plus land deal in 2005. he land, nearly 20 acres of abandoned rail line, stretches from Charlotte to High Falls, and a significant portion will be converted to a recreational trail next year. The 130-year-old bridge was something of an extra — and also an unknown.bilde.jpg

If it turns out to be the “workhorse” city officials hope, however, then it could be a stunning addition to the city trail system one day, on par with the Pont du Rennes pedestrian bridge at High Falls.

“You are pretty high up. It’s a scary situation,” said Tom Hack, senior structural engineer for the city. “(But) it does have a bit of coolness to it — it really does.”

Work began this week inspecting the bridge, a $135,000 project with the city paying engineers from Bergmann Associates, aided by Skala Inc. technicians, to go over the side of the bridge on ropes, to climb and check the support structure. The on-site work will continue into next week, with a feasibility study — outlining options from demolition to rehabilitation — due to the city by mid-2010.

“It’s really a process of discovery for us,” said Mike Cooper, project manager with Bergmann. “We really don’t have a lot of background information.”

Much of what is known about the bridge came from railroad history buffs on the Internet. The bridge last was used in the mid-1980s and decommissioned in the mid-1990s. Inspectors have found reinforcement steel, and some problems with the stone masonry of the east abutment. Up top, the steel rails have been removed, allowing some of the ties to warp and shift, “which is an uneasy feeling” when crossing on foot, Cooper said.

This is one of two unused railroad river bridges the city hopes to reuse. The other is south of Ford Street and links the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood to the University of Rochester campus.

“There’s certainly a number out there that are probably still lying around, unused,” said Cooper, whose firm just completed work last month on the former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge over the Hudson River.

Early indications are that Rochester’s bridge is sound, Cooper said.

Once the city knows the stability of the bridge, how much weight it will support, and other fundamentals, officials would need to decide whether to move ahead and seek funding. Factoring in planning and design, the project likely remains at least three or four years off, and could cost as much as $2 million or $3 million, Hack said.

The bridge would be another link in the Genesee Riverway Trail, and connect into the planned El Camino-Butterhole-Seneca Park Trail. Construction on the El Camino trail should begin next summer, running along the old rail line between Seneca Park and St. Paul Street, and crossing Ridge Road West on another old railroad bridge.

That work is being paid for with a $2 million federal grant and $150,000 from Eastman Kodak Co. Also next year, the city should receive $70,000 in state money to design a Genesee Riverway Trail connection on the west side of the river from Smith Street to Brown and Mill streets in High Falls. The city will spend $20,000 on a temporary trail connection next year.

All this fits into a larger $1 million connection running all the way from Lower Falls to downtown on the west side of the river. Separately, the city plans to put up signs next year for on-street trail routes downtown.

“Now, we don’t think that is perfect, but at least it will connect up from Court Street to the Riverway Trail at St. Paul,” said JoAnn Beck, the city’s senior landscape architect.

There also are plans for the city to develop a bicycle master plan, mapping connections to neighborhoods.

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