The Tulsa City Council's public works committee heard from multiple engineers Wednesday as councilors questioned whether it was possible to preserve the existing Arkansas River pedestrian bridge even as a replacement is constructed.
"We as Oklahomans tend to tear things down and regret it later," said Councilor Kara Joy McKee, who along with Councilors Jeannie Cue and Crista Patrick brought the agenda item before the committee. "And we've got this lovely old bridge that so many people have enjoyed."
"I just think that there's a lot of conflicting information bandying about, and so I really wanted to be able to clarify what -- if the bridge is actually saveable, if it's not saveable, and then to go through that process of how we got here," Patrick said.
Mayor G.T. Bynum told the council that the original plan, dating back to when he sat on the council in 2013, was to look at putting a second level on the existing bridge to better accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. After that was approved by voters, Bynum said he was part of a council working group concerning river amenities for about three years when city engineers presented an assessment.
"The basic response that we had from that engineering report was that the bridge that exists was, you know, a century old at that point, was not built with modern engineering technology, was not built to be a pedestrian bridge," Bynum said. "Essentially, the cost to repair this bridge for it to be safe for people to use is going to be close to what it's going to cost you to just build a new bridge."
"I want to be super clear that the decision to demolish the old bridge and build the new bridge was not something that we just came up with at City Hall," Bynum said, noting that voters approved it in 2016 as part of the Vision Tulsa program. "It is something that came up through probably the most exhaustive public input of any capital program that the city has ever put together."
City of Tulsa engineering director Paul Zachary corroborated the mayor's account, saying his team's assessment found the initial work to rehabilitate and reinforce the existing bridge would have cost up to 80% of the costs of a new bridge, plus the costs of ongoing upkeep and maintenance for a century-old bridge of its kind.
"It would have required an ongoing capital program to bring this bridge to fully revitalizing it," Zachary said.
Engineer Bill Smith, who designed the original Zink Dam -- "so that's how long I've been doing this" -- said the designs for the new bridge and other river projects simply don't allow for the structures from the old bridge to remain.
"If this was even considered, it would have had to start back in the 2014-2015 time period," Smith said. "We've gone way down the road from that."
Councilor Connie Dodson raised the prospect of using some of the material from the old bridge, once demolished, as design elements of the new bridge, "to kind of keep some of that historical element to a new bridge."
"The Gateway Bridge, the new bridge, is already 100% designed," said Jeff Stava, executive director of the Gathering Place, who is overseeing the bridge project.
"We've already kind of gone through design and we've already gone to bid, and we've awarded about $22 million worth of contracts for the bridge project, so we're a little bit too late to be able to repurpose any of those materials," Stava said. "We are going to be taking a section of the bridge as an add alternate and putting it on the west bank, and River Parks is going to be disassembling it into pieces so that people can have mementos.
"There's a lot of people that have requested pieces of the bridge because significant events in their life have happened on that bridge: engagements, weddings, birthday parties and things," Stava said.
McKee appeared convinced.
"I know it can be painful to see something go that we love, and it appears to me that we've really tried to explore the avenues available to preserve what we have," McKee said.
"I'm not seeing a path forward for this bridge other than living on in our memories," she said.