In the next month, New Braunfels will lose a prime downtown traffic route as work begins on renovating San Antonio Street’s Comal River Bridge. Staging begins Thursday ahead of the $4,518,896 restoration, part of the Texas Department of Transportation’s Off-System Bridge Program.
“For more than 20 years, the San Antonio Street Bridge has been in need of repairs,” Mayor Barron Casteel said. “It was identified as substandard, which is why it was considered as part of TxDOT’s program.
“We used improvements we were making on Alves Lane and in other parts of our community and TxDOT credited us for those as part of our match in the project. That made it a totally state funded project, except for minor right-of-way purchases.”
City officials have established alternative downtown travel routes and created a website to keep residents informed throughout the project, which begins with a complete closure of the bridge Sept. 3. TxDOT said it hopes to complete the project within 470 working days, or 16 months.
“We’re excited to work with our close partners at the city of New Braunfels and Comal County on this great project that will rehabilitate and revamp the historic San Antonio Street bridge,” said Hernan Rozemberg, TxDOT’s San Antonio division public information officer. “Once completed, New Braunfels residents will see and experience the difference when driving over the bridge.”
Improved pedestrian safety, emergency vehicle access
Casteel credited Mayor Pro Tem and District 5 Council Member Wayne Peters for sitting in for him for final meetings on the project.
“I was on vacation and I didn’t want to delay it for having to meet with me,” he said. “Wayne has always actively been involved and for years has passionately served as our point person on this project.”
Peters said he’s worked toward bridge improvements since his election to council in 2014.
“This was one of the things on my bucket list,” he said. “It’s such a danger, we’re lucky we haven’t had any unfortunate incidents. Pedestrians will be a lot safer walking across it, and vehicles will be a lot safer.”
The bridge structure will remain in its current configuration but reinforced with footings to eliminate the weight provisions that now prohibit emergency vehicles and larger trucks from safely using the bridge.
“We’ll be providing a much stronger and safer structure that meets current load standards and will much better accommodate larger vehicles, including first responders using fire trucks, to safely get across with a much wider bridge deck,” Rozemberg added. “Beyond vehicles, we’ll be helping improve pedestrian quality of life by providing new eight-foot sidewalks.
“Along with our other ongoing work in and around New Braunfels, such as the Loop 337 expansion, we’re here to help address quickly-growing infrastructure needs based on the area’s rapid population growth.”
Buda-based Capital Excavation Company, the chief contractor, will begin staging equipment on Thursday and soon establish a construction field office near Prince Solms Park.
“Having the office there will expedite the project,” said Greg Malatek, city public works director. “It will also keep unnecessary traffic from going through downtown and into surrounding neighborhoods.”
Barricades will begin appearing around the construction perimeter Aug. 19, and more and more equipment will appear at the site leading up to the start of construction after Labor Day.
“After the barricades go up and they will set up erosion control netting in areas to not disturb the soil and keep that from going into the river,” Malatek added.
Rerouting downtown traffic
Malatek said the city will reroute and detour traffic north and south of the bridge. The most recent traffic count, performed at the end of June near the intersection of West San Antonio Street and South Gilbert Avenue, indicated 2,448 northbound and 6,966 southbound vehicles utilized the bridge daily.
“People are going to be a little miffed during the construction,” Casteel said. “But the bridge will be gone while we create a better bridge. It will provide more mobility and really improve on what we have, such as emergency vehicles and fire trucks now being able to cross the bridge, and keep people from falling and potentially dying from slipping off the bridge.”
The city plans to divert northbound San Antonio Street traffic to Comal Avenue, Garden Street and South Union Avenue, and reroute southbound traffic through North Union Avenue, West Torrey Street, Elizabeth Avenue, Hinman Island Drive and Landa Park Drive.
Malatek said the city hasn’t studied potential economic impacts to area businesses during construction, but is more focused on informing the public of upcoming detours.
“Certainly with the newspaper’s help, social media, the website and hopefully TxDOT providing some electronic messaging near the site will let folks know the bridge will be closing next few weeks,” he said.
Renovation details and timeframe
Capital Excavation will construct a wooden frame under the bridge, about 15 feet above the waterline, to catch debris too small to be removed by cranes. It will then preserve the existing bridge support arches before starting topside demolition, with sections demolished and quickly replaced with pre-casted substructure in a process moving across the bridge.
“When Capital Excavation reaches one milestone and prepares for another, then we want to get that out to the public,” Casteel said. “We might need to change detours or other plans during the course of the project, and we want to make sure everyone is fully informed.”
The Comal River will be closed to water recreation during construction, but contractors will be tasking seven days a week. While TxDOT is aiming for an August 2020 finish, the city would like to see the bridge reopen on or shortly after next Memorial Day – the ceremonial start of the summer river recreation season.
“We hope to get it finished by then, or shortly into next year’s recreation season,” Peters added. “By then, it’s hoped it will be finished enough that it won’t prohibit people from floating the river; to finish it enough to drive on it will depend on the weather.”
Malatek said the construction schedule will be continuously updated.
“In our discussions, TxDOT had wanted to begin Aug. 1, but we thought it important to our residents and tourists that construction begins after Labor Day,” he said. “The sooner they get started, the sooner they’ll finish, and TxDOT and Capital really seem dedicated to getting the resources out there and getting the job done.”
The city’s webpage to update citizens and visitors on the project is up and running at www.nbtexas.org/bridge. Staffers are planning meetings with the Downtown Association and other stakeholder groups in the next few weeks, and will also soon update area river outfitters on the project.
“We’re going to communicate, communicate and communicate with those area businesses that will be affected,” Casteel said. “The more we get the word out to the public on what’s going on, the better off we’ll be. And we’re going to keep doing it throughout the project, which will create a better bridge for the future.”