San Antonio Street bridge construction closes access to downtown thoroughfare

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The San Antonio Street bridge was closed Sept. 3 for the duration of a 16-month TxDOT project. (via Ian Pribanic/Community Impact Newspaper)

One of the main downtown thoroughfares for city of New Braunfels residents is closed for the foreseeable future.

Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation suspended traffic on the San Antonio Street bridge Sept. 3 for the duration of the estimated 16-month project. River recreation on the Comal River in the vicinity of the bridge will be suspended from Sept. 23 until May 25.

“The goal of this project is to retain the historic architectural integrity of the bridge,” said Hernan Rozemberg, TxDOT public information officer for the San Antonio district. “The original columns will remain in place, and all renovation work will focus on the deck. It is out of an abundance of caution … to ensure the utmost public safety that river activity under the bridge must cease during construction.”

Contractor Capital Excavation will construct a temporary “second deck” below the bridge in order to ensure public safety and protect the surrounding environment from falling debris, Rozemberg said.

According to city officials, the deck will be located approximately 15 feet above the Comal River.

Need for renovation

Built in 1923, the San Antonio Street bridge was determined to not meet structural and functional standards by TxDOT due to vehicle and pedestrian safety concerns.

At seven spans–a span being the distance between two intermediate supports of the bridge–and 410 feet in length, the bridge lacks a shoulder and is limited to 10-foot-wide travel lanes and 4-foot-wide sidewalks on both sides, according to TxDOT documents.

In addition, the bridge has a maximum load limit of 20,000 pounds per vehicle, which prohibits use by some emergency vehicles, such as firetrucks, according to New Braunfels City Manager Robert Camareno.

“Everything from the arches down stays the same,” said Greg Malatek, city of New Braunfels director of public works. “They’re going to bring in some cranes and take the deck off and cut each of the segments as they go across the bridge. Segments will be taken off-site to be broken up to preserve the environment in the area.”

Specifications for an updated prefabricated deck, or superstructure of the bridge, include a weight load-limit exceeding 50,000 pounds per vehicle in order to accommodate all types of emergency vehicles, according to city officials.

Per TxDOT project specifications for the San Antonio Street bridge, the updated bridge will increase from 30 feet in width to 48 feet wide in order to accommodate 15-foot-wide travel lanes with shoulders and 8-foot-wide sidewalks on both sides at a cost of $4.8 million.

The majority of funding will come from the federal Highway Bridge Program, while the city will contribute its required 10% of funding using credit earned from previous TxDOT projects, said TxDOT and city officials.

“The arches will only be for aesthetic purposes and will no longer hold up the bridge,” Malatek said. “It will be a different type of structure where they’ve converted everything so all the force is on the columns.”

One concern for construction crews, according to Malatek, is the possibility of cracking in the bridge arches once the compression of the original deck is lifted. In a worst-case scenario, the project will incur a temporary delay while a plan is devised to fix any damage to the arches.

“TxDOT and Capital Excavation understand the need to get this bridge open as fast as possible,” Malatek said. “Starting Sept. 3, they’ll work in two shifts day and night.”

“In the beginning it will appear slow, but once the structure is removed and we start placing the new structure, it will pick up,” Capital Excavation Area Manager Troy Wanner said about the project. “If everything runs smooth, there’s always potential to pick up time. Weather is a factor … never can guarantee it. In construction you always have the what-ifs that can slow you up.”

Maintaining the aesthetic

Another area of focus, Malatek said, is the historical integrity of the arches, which exhibit significant features, including dozens of spandrel columns connecting the main arches to the superstructure above. In preserving the overall look of the superstructure itself, city officials appointed a committee to focus on best matching the current aesthetic of the iconic railings, lighting fixtures and finials.

In the future, there are plans for the current railings, lighting fixtures and finials to be preserved and put on display by the city, possibly at Prince Solms Park or the Sophienberg Museum, according to Sheri Masterson, New Braunfels public information officer.

The current monuments and plaques located on the San Antonio Street bridge will also be preserved and reinstalled once the new bridge is in place, city officials said.

Downtown traffic detour

Another area of focus for the city and a primary concern for many residents and downtown business owners is the detour route chosen for the project, which was the result of work from TxDOT researchers, according to city engineer Mary Hamann.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of things as much as possible,” Hamann said.

The primary detour route chosen by TxDOT and the city directs all San Antonio Street bridge traffic north of the Comal River further east along South Union Avenue, south along West Lincoln Street and across the Comal River onto Garden Street. From there traffic can turn right heading west on Comal Avenue toward downtown or continue south intersecting with South Seguin Avenue.

“From a business location standpoint, I would never have located my business at the end of a long cul-de-sac, which is essentially what we’re turning into,” said Kevin Peterson, owner of Currents Décor & Design, 364 E. San Antonio St., New Braunfels, along with his wife, Yvette Krystal Englehart-Peterson.

“The problem is the ‘No thru traffic’ sign,” Peterson said. “People see no traffic on a big orange-and-white sign, and they turn around the other way. How do you overcome something like that? Big orange signs work. They’ve continued to be used for years and are very effective.”

Among Peterson’s concerns are the lack of daily passersby and loss of potential impulse buys, near zero store visibility from the street and the overall length of the project, he said. According to numbers provided by the city of New Braunfels, an average of 9,414 cars crossed the San Antonio Street bridge per day during the month of June.

To help combat the inconvenience, Peterson said he and other members of the New Braunfels Downtown Association plan to make use of the now-vacant “cul-de-sac” at the intersection of San Antonio Street and Gilbert Avenue, including possibilities such as an open-air market or a festival to help increase foot traffic throughout the downtown area.

“It’d be a partnership and a collaboration on an unused space that the city and residents won’t have access to,” Peterson said. “How can we benefit local businesses and the people of New Braunfels and make the best out of a situation that smells. From a retailer’s perspective, losing two fourth quarters in a row from one project … it’s bad timing. We were on a busy thoroughfare, and we won’t be for a while, but we’re all in this together down here.”

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