It seems like an easy fix: replace an aging Reno bridge system over the Truckee River with similar concrete spans and be done with it for at least 75 years.
That’s the problem, according to some critics, who say the Regional Transportation Commission’s plan to remove and replace the Arlington bridges doesn’t take the city’s future needs into account. And some citizens involved in the agency’s ongoing stakeholders’ meetings complain that their participation had more to do with rubber-stamping RTC’s preferred plan than actually contributing ideas about alternatives.
“We can do so much more with the money,” said Honor Jones of Reno, a former member of the Reno Recreation and Parks Commission and a member of the RTC’s stakeholders’ panel. “(The agency) has such tunnel vision. They focus only on ripping out the old bridge and building what is basically the same bridge in its place.”
Jones and some others on the committee said RTC presented very narrow options to the stakeholders. That satisfied RTC’s mandate to solicit public comment, but excluded any opportunities for a wider discussion of the city’s future needs. Some participants in the panels also questioned the wisdom of replacing a bridge that bisects Wingfield Park without also upgrading that park or considering options to relocate the span further away from it.
RTC defends process
Regional Transportation District officials said citizens were involved in every step of project planning, beginning in 2019, and said they are surprised that critics say the agency didn’t do enough to solicit public input.
“We did pretty extensive public outreach in terms of public meetings, virtual meetings, some stakeholder-specific meetings, Technical Advisory Committee Meetings, (coordinating with) local jurisdictions and neighbors,” said Lauren Ball, RTC spokeswoman, who noted that the bridge bisects Wingfield Park. “Anyone interested had the ability to watch many of those meetings online and we’ve had a ton of public comments, questions and perspectives. People are really, really interested in this project.”
“That park is a gathering place for our community, a special place in the heart of Reno, and we really want to do a good job on that project. We aren’t just checking the box (for public outreach). We truly care about this project.”– Lauren Ball, RTC spokeswoman.
The public outreach will continue throughout the planning process, when stakeholders will be able to comment on and offer suggestions about things like pedestrian walkways, lighting and aesthetics, Ball said. All public documents relating to the project can be found online.
Arlington bridges not falling down
Arlington Avenue crosses the Truckee River on two connected bridges. A main span on the north side crosses the wider branch of the river, the roadway continues across the Wingfield Park island, and then a second, shorter bridge takes traffic over the narrow river fork to the south.
Unlike some of the area’s bridges, which were higher on the city’s replacement-priority list, the nearly century-old Arlington span isn’t in danger of falling apart anytime soon, but RTC officials said they are looking ahead. Based on annual inspections done by the Nevada Department of Transportation, both bridges are categorized as “structurally deficient.” That means the reinforced-concrete construction has damage or wear that, if not addressed, could become worse, leading to failure. The foundation of the north bridge also has water damage around the two concrete bridge piers sunk in the river channel.
The agency’s preferred option for replacing the bridges involves building the new north structure with one pier in the center, rather than the two piers that now support the roadway. The project will cost an estimated $25 million, which RTC says already is available from state and federal allocations.
Coordination among agencies
Critics complained that the RTC project is focused on traffic circulation, without paying attention to flood control, park improvements or the increasing population density of the area. They said that’s because different agencies have different purviews.
RTC is a transportation agency. Reno is responsible for Wingfield Park and oversees flood control. The Truckee River has overflowed its banks in downtown Reno throughout the city’s history, including the New Year’s Flood of 1997, when streets submerged and floodwaters crept up to the front doors of casinos and other businesses a block from the river.
Jones and other stakeholders said flood-control improvements should be part of the overall planning for the Arlington project. In the 1997 and other major floods, debris washed down the river, collected under the downtown bridges, and heavy equipment was used to clear the bottlenecks.
The Truckee River Flood Management Authority has stated that the Arlington bridges “were not and have never been” a part of the current Truckee River Flood Project. A majority of the surrounding Wingfield Park is naturally within the flood plain, officials said, and the Arlington spans don’t contribute to flooding of the park or adjacent areas.
Even so, heavy equipment is used to clear away debris that collects beneath the spans. That has caused damage to both the bridge and the roadway, critics noted. RTC, they said, hasn’t included budget items for ongoing bridge maintenance or flood cleanup.
Wider factors to be considered
Toni Harsh, a former Reno city councilwoman who also is a member of the stakeholders’ panel, said the project’s limited scope is an example of short-sightedness by local governments and agencies. Reno, she said, “needs a renaissance, not more Band Aids.” That remark got some pushback from RTC officials.
“We’re not just putting a Band Aid on it. We’re looking to replace the bridges; maximize pedestrian access and access to the park; and increase safety, all things that are part of the purpose and need of a project. We just got done doing a feasibility study for 18 months, now we have the preferred bridge type… There will still be public input about what the bridge will look like, its effects on the park and keying into some of the other design features.” – Judy Tortelli, RTC project manager.
Harsh noted that local governments often conduct studies and consider innovative plans, but the studies are soon shelved and forgotten. The projects, if they come to fruition, often are scaled down to the cheapest, most-expedient alternatives, Harsh said.
The existing City Plaza at the site of the now-demolished Mapes Hotel-Casino on Virginia Street is a case in point, she said. Many options for a plaza were discussed, but in the end Reno wound up with a concrete pad and minimal landscaping. “There also was a wonderful plan for the river corridor in the 1990s, but that’s forgotten on a shelf somewhere,” she said. “The excuse is always the cost, but the city pushes money around all the time. They can find the money.”
“We have to have the foresight and the gumption to love our town a little bit more than just accepting mediocrity.” – Toni Harsh, member of the RTC stakeholder committee.
Limited public input
Harsh said the public involvement process for the Arlington project was predictable.
“A limited number of options are presented and we get to talk about those,” she said. “At the end, (panel members) are invited to speak for three minutes about things that (RTC) has already decided. The real issues are: how will this new bridge improve things; how is it going to help traffic, the park, and downtown revitalization?”
The decision to remove and replace the old bridge with a similar structure is “an easy call,” Harsh said, but doesn’t do much to improve the downtown district. “We have an opportunity here, but we don’t need another mistake like City Plaza… We shouldn’t miss this opportunity. The community deserves it; the river deserves it. “
Jones said the planning for such projects is fragmented among agencies. “RTC says ‘we’ll build the bridge and everybody else can do what they want.’ Nobody wants to touch another (agency’s) territory.”
Thousands of new apartment units are planned near the park, Jones noted, and bridge plans need to take that growth into account. In addition, Jones said, having a major road bisect the park was never a good idea, but RTC never considered any alternatives for the route.
Jones and Harsh are advocating for a proposal conceived by Eric Sheetz, a professional civil engineer. Sheetz envisions Reno outgrowing Arlington Avenue’s present bridge route in a relatively short time. He suggests a “fly- over” design that would originate at Court Street, then swing towards the west above the existing Island Avenue parking spaces on the south side of Wingfield Park. That route would lead to one bridge that would cross the river at the park’s western apex before gradually descending back to street level via Stevenson Street before curving back to the existing Arlington Avenue.
That plan, Sheetz maintains, would create a safe non-stop route for emergency vehicles, large delivery trucks, buses, and cars. The removal of the roadway from Wingfield Park would open-up the entire park, advocates said. It also would end the need to close Arlington Avenue during special events and eliminate the steep descent from Court Street down to Wingfield Park during winter months when streets are icy.
‘A straight shot’
Sheetz’s rerouting proposal didn’t get much traction from RTC officials, who said the cost of relocating the crossing would be prohibitive and the plan doesn’t make sense in terms of traffic circulation.
Judy Tortelli, RTC’s project engineer, said the agency never considered relocating the bridge. “Arlington is a regional road,” she said. “It’s a straight shot.” Rerouting that road and having it jog around the park only to rejoin Arlington south of the river isn’t a viable alternative and also would create safety problems, she said.
Of the five options presented to the stakeholders committee, four involved the support structures for the north bridge. Two showed arches either above or below the roadway. Another was a “free-span” design with no supporting piers under the bridge. The fourth showed a single pier at the center of the bridge and was the one adopted as the final iteration of the bridge design.
A fifth option depicted an elevated design that would stretch above the park. That alternative, which would add $7 million to $10 million to the project’s estimated $25 million price tag, was rejected due to the costs, interference with the viewshed and other factors.
Making a statement
Jones, Harsh and others on the stakeholders’ panel have urged RTC to look beyond the cheapest, easiest option and do something significant to improve the downtown district. “Stop and ask the questions; look at what other cities, from San Antonio to Sacramento, are doing with their river corridors,” Jones said. “Are we doing the right thing with this replacement bridge? Are we doing the right things to make Reno a vibrant city again? Let’s not go backwards with what we are doing to our core.”
But not every bridge along the Truckee needs “to be a big, signature bridge,” Tortelli said. “We have more than one we need to replace and they are not cheap. If you do some huge, elaborate bridge at every crossing, you can’t do all of them… There’s only so much money.”
Other bridges awaiting replacement include the crossings at Lake, Booth and Sierra streets, and the more massive Keystone Avenue bridge. Tortelli noted that the city replaced the 116-year-old Virginia Street Bridge in 2016, and that structure received generally good reviews from architecture critics and residents.
‘We’re going to blow it’
Pete Stremmel, owner of the Stremmel Gallery in Reno and a member of the RTC stakeholder committee, isn’t a big fan of the new Virginia Street Bridge. The designs for the Arlington project, though, are some of the “worst bridge designs he has ever seen,” he said.
“We have an opportunity to really do something big there and I think we’re going to blow it,” he said. He noted that other cities in the U.S. and abroad have taken advantage of replacement projects by soliciting designs from accomplished architects and making the new bridges focal points of those cities.
“When you get these fabulous bridges, something synergistic happens to those cities,” Stremmel said, adding that the Sundial Bridge in Redding, Calif., illustrates his point. Wingfield is, in a way, Reno’s “Central Park,” he said, and should be complimented by more than a concrete block overpass. An attractive bridge also would elevate the city’s deteriorating downtown district.
“Let’s face it, downtown Reno is ugly; it’s not a place for a family vacation,” Stremmel said. “If we could do one thing right, build a really beautiful bridge, it would have a synergistic effect on downtown.”
“What makes cities great is diversity — ethnic diversity, and architectural diversity as well. That has a really big effect on how we view the world. If that happened, I think people would start taking a little more pride in their properties and it might attract some quality developers. Maybe something magical could happen downtown.” – Pete Stremmel, member of the RTC stakeholders’ panel.
“…Arlington bridge can be a showpiece for tourists and locals alike. But once again, we’re going for the low-hanging fruit; we’re looking backwards rather than forwards,” Stremmel said.
The pedestrian spans
Two narrow wooden pedestrian bridges also cross the Truckee at Wingfield Park, but they aren’t part of the Arlington replacement project. In addition, RTC officials said coordinating city park improvements with the bridge construction isn’t feasible.
“The City of Reno asked us to look at redoing the park and what kind of impact that would have,” Tortelli said. “…Park improvements would be great, but we probably wanted to get the bridge done first and have the city do park improvements after the fact.”
She noted that the agency spent 18 months on a feasibility study for the bridges alone, but there’s been no planning or outreach done for redoing the park. “That public engagement has to happen before moving forward and that has to be done on the city side,” she said.
Tortelli said the agency looks at all forms of transportation, not just motor vehicles. The bridge project, she said, will include plans for “wider sidewalks, maintaining bike lanes, upgrading transit abilities in and around the park and pedestrian paths under the bridge to make them more accessible.”
‘Refreshing’ Wingfield Park
Reno Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus said the bridge project should include upgrades to the two pedestrian bridges because those qualify as transportation improvements.
“It’s within bounds of the RTC to include the pedestrian bridges in and out of Wingfield,” she said. “Right now they are made up of splintered wood planks. I think that needs to be part of the scope.” In addition, she said, the city needs to refresh Wingfield Park.
“We need to see where we are with resources to do that.” RTC will stay in its lane in rebuilding the concrete bridge, Brekhus said, but the city should push for pedestrian-bridge improvements to be included in the project. Some park improvements also could be done at the same time as the bridge work, she said, but that depends on the availability of funds and being able to plan those improvements in a relatively short timeframe..