In the words of U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, the city of Amsterdam is both gifted and split by its Mohawk River waterfront.
For decades the river has divided the city’s north and south sides, ever since the construction of the Route 30 bridge to the New York state Thruway, which eliminated an older bridge that once made Bridge Street on Amsterdam’s south side a thriving part of the community.
Tonko said the river also represents Amsterdam’s best opportunity to promote tourism and revitalize its sagging economy. He said the construction of a $17 million foot bridge across the river is the key step to re-linking the city and lifting its fortunes in the decades ahead.
“Now we can control both sides of the panorama,” he said. “People have wanted more activities on the water. The pedestrian bridge began to emerge as a concept that would allow for connection where there was displacement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.”
The pedestrian bridge was approved by New York voters in 2006 as part of a $2.9 billion state transportation bond act. Tonko, then a member of the Assembly, fought for the bridge’s inclusion in the bond act. Since then the bridge concept has been met with some skepticism among people who question whether it will truly stimulate economic activity, or whether there isn’t a better way to spend $17 million in the depressed former mill town.
Although the project provides money for designing a walkway from the foot bridge into downtown Amsterdam, construction of the walkway is not funded by the project and won’t be built unless additional state or federal funding is provided. The lack of a downtown connection has led some to label the project a “bridge to nowhere.”
Wednesday night Tonko along with officials from the New York State Thruway Authority/Canal Corporation and engineering firm Saratoga Associates conducted a public forum at Lynch Middle School to discuss design concepts for the bridge.
Mayor Ann Thane attended. She said the foot bridge will be the centerpiece to turning around her city’s economy.
“Connecting the downtown and the north and south shore is really the key to economic revitalization,” she said.
Eric Whiting, the lead architect for Saratoga Associates, presented three design concepts, all containing the theme of a park within the bridge, with trees and open spaces for gatherings and events. One design would be a simple straight bridge, another would curve slightly and the third would be an innovative “reverse curve” bridge.
Community members can vote on the three bridge designs by using paper ballots available at City Hall and Lynch Middle School, or vote online at the city’s website. Officials said the voting process is non-binding but input will still be considered by Saratoga Associates. Officials said the voting will probably be left open for the next two months.
Other factors that will control how the bridge is ultimately designed include how to avoid the foundations of the old bridge that was removed from the river when Route 30 was built. Officials said the foundations are too difficult to remove and too weak to build on, so the new bridge will need to be built around them.
Whiting said a design such as the reverse curve shape could make the bridge a tourism destination just because of its uniqueness. He provided examples of other bridges that have helped stimulate tourism, including “the Bridge of Flowers” in Shelburne Falls, Mass.
“If someone was crossing the Route 30 bridge and looked down and saw a curved bridge ... I mean, I’d have to stop,” he said.
Although most in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting appeared to be impressed by the design concepts, several remained concerned about the lack of a downtown connection. The first three questions asked by the community focused on why the bridge doesn’t connect directly to downtown even though the project authorized money for the design of a downtown walkway.
Tonko said the transportation bond act in 2006 was “narrowly written” in such a way that funding could not be included in a Canal Corporation project for building over railroad lines, which a walkway to downtown would need to do. He said he believes funding will eventually be made available for a direct downtown connection.
“When you go forward with this kind of investment you can make a very strong argument to apply for funds for the final link,” Tonko said. “The federal authorization for transportation funds is up every five years. When those grants come around they’ll be looking for shovel-ready projects and we’ll be able to show this is the final piece.”
Canal Corporation Director Carmella Mantello said the funding for the pedestrian bridge would never have been approved if state and federal money had not already been awarded for the construction of Riverlink Park.
“Building this bridge will have a domino effect. You will have private sector companies looking to make investments here because of the bridge,” she said.
City resident Jim Nicosia said he doubts much business will be stimulated until a direct connection to downtown is included in the project.
“Why would I build a business down below, when there’s no way to get out to the river from the north side,” he said. “I agree that this is a beautiful concept, but I think it’s a mistake that the funding for the egress [into downtown] is not in place.”
Brit Basinger, the director of landscape architecture for Saratoga Associates, said it was false for critics to say the bridge won’t connect the north and south sides of Amsterdam. He said the pedestrian bridge will connect directly to Riverlink Park, which has its own walkway above the railroad tracks that connects to Riverlink Center, which people can use to walk to downtown.
“This is not a bridge to nowhere,” he said.
Tonko defended the piecemeal funding process. “It would be great if there could be just one check to pay for everything, but I don’t think that’s how things happen,” he said.
Officials said a draft design report containing engineering studies for the bridge as well as an environmental assessment for the project will be submitted to all of the state and federal agencies that need to approve the project at the end of September. The Thruway Authority/Canal Corporation is expected to grant final project design approval sometime in spring 2011.
Construction of the project will likely begin in 2012 and is expected to be completed in 2015.