It’s been more than six years since the historic railroad bridge connecting downtown Marietta with Harmar Village was temporarily closed to pedestrian and bicycle traffic for eight months due to concerns about the span’s structural integrity.
But plans for a renovation of the 156-year-old bridge site remain on hold, with funding continuing to be a major hurdle.
“We would like to see something going on with the bridge, but it will take some spending,” said Chuck Swaney, a member of the Harmar Bridge Company, a local group that owns the span and is dedicated to its preservation.
The bridge reopened to foot and bicycle traffic in May 2008 after local union workers helped stabilize the superstructure and walkway, and it has remained open ever since.
“It’s still safe to cross, and there are no structural difficulties at this point, but that could change. The structure just continues to get older year after year,” said Brooks Harper, president of the Harmar Bridge Company.
He said the window of opportunity for a complete restoration of the bridge is growing smaller every year, and there seems to have been little interest in the project over the last few years.
The proposed restoration would include a widening of the walkway across the current rail section of the bridge and installation of benches where people could sit and enjoy views of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers.
“We haven’t changed our outlook for the restoration, but I think the city has basically written us off,” Harper said.
During the eight-month period that the bridge was closed, city council, the bridge company and state and federal representatives began dis-
cussing the renovation project, which at the time had an estimated price tag of more than $1.7 million.
Harper said grant funding was sought, but no money was realized for the project.
Marietta Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, who represents the Harmar district, said the large amount of money needed for the renovation would likely require federal funding.
“(Former U.S. Congressman) Charlie Wilson was working to earmark funding in the federal budget for the project, but then he lost the election,” Vukovic said, adding that it would now be up to current congressional representatives to pick up the pursuit of those monies.
Wilson, a Democrat, died in April of this year.
“What a tragedy it would be to lose this bridge,” Vukovic said, noting the span is unique in that it can be turned to accommodate river traffic, and may be the last bridge of its type in the entire nation.
Councilman Harley Noland, D-at large, who is current chairman of council’s lands, buildings and parks committee, agreed that it will take a large amount of funding to save the span in the long run.
“And it would take a joint effort between the city and the Harmar Bridge Company, as the city does not hold title to the bridge,” he said. “We do know what we would like to do, but there’s just no money to get it done.”
Noland noted the fourth phase of Marietta’s River Trail project has been planned to cross the railroad bridge into the Harmar district and eventually link on that side of the Muskingum to a larger trail system that would connect to the Belpre and Athens areas.
“That bridge has always been a vital link between the downtown and Harmar, but it’s also a great draw for tourists who visit the city,” he said. “We haven’t forgotten about the bridge project, it’s just that we don’t have the money now.”
Noland added that the fifth phase of the River Trail project, extending the pathway from the current terminus at Jefferson Street to the Walmart complex, has taken precedent over the fourth phase crossing the railroad bridge.
“Phase 4 is something we would love to see,” Swaney said. “But no plans have been drafted, and any granting agency would want to see some plans, and how do we get the money to get this done?”
Harper said the main concern for the bridge right is lighting for the span. He said only one of the bridge’s eight lights is operable at this time.
He said the bridge company is currently able to keep the span maintained and in good shape financially. The company relies on fundraisers throughout the year to support the budget.
Harper said the organization has raised approximately $20,000, and some of that money will go for maintenance and utilities expenses. But he hopes a portion of that amount can also be used as matching funds for grants to support an eventual bridge restoration project.