Safety first on the Science Hill footbridge

Johnson City Press • May 17, 2018 at 7:30 AM

Johnson City Mayor David Tomita says it would be “insanity” for the city to spend an estimated $1.3 million to repair the footbridge over John Exum Parkway.

Would it be?

For decades, students have used the bridge to safely cross John Exum to and from Science Hill High School. As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Tuesday’s edition, the bridge has deteriorated to the point city officials consider the structure itself unsafe. They have recommended closing it when the school year ends in a few weeks.

According to Public Works Director Phil Pindzola, repairing or replacing the bridge would require making it handicap-accessible for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, hence the high price tag.

So the city staff conducted a pedestrian count to estimate just how many students regularly use the bridge. A little more than 100 students were crossing the bridge in mornings, while a few more used it afternoons. The bridge’s east side steps lead into the Heritage Baptist Church parking lot, where many students are dropped off and picked up for school. Parents often use the lot to avoid the congestion on John Exum and at the Science Hill campus’ car lane.

How many students actually walk from and to home using the bridge was unclear, though. It’s not uncommon to see students with their backpacks along North Roan Street each morning and afternoon.

Among the alternatives to repairs city leaders have floated include converting the bridge into a “gateway sign” for Science Hill while adding crosswalks on John Exum and/or new drop-off/pick-up lanes on the campus, essentially to avoid use of the Heritage lot.

New campus car lanes would only exacerbate the congestion issue around the Science Hill-Liberty Bell Middle School complex, as thousands of students are carried into the area via buses and personal vehicles throughout the school year. Liberty Bell Boulevard, John Exum and other streets around the complex already are congested in mornings and afternoons.

As for crosswalks, we’d hate to see the city bog down the area even more by halting traffic as students cross. With four travel lanes and a median/turn lane, John Exum is one of the city’s most traveled thoroughfares. Science Hill sits at one of the city’s busiest “malfunction junctions” — the intersection of John Exum, Liberty Bell and the two legs of North Roan. The crosswalk idea brings to mind images of East Tennessee State University, where students often are seen playing human Frogger as they cross five lanes on West State of Franklin Road despite the presence of crosswalks and ETSU’s own bridge.

Johnson City Schools officials already have stated support for keeping the SHHS bridge, and on the Science Hill PTSA’s Facebook page, parents have stated fears about the safety of students crossing John Exum.

“There is far too much traffic on JEP for the students to safely cross,” wrote one parent. “It is strictly a safety issue. … It is deteriorating and unsafe therefore must be repaired/replaced in order to ensure the safe passage across the parkway of our pedestrian student population.

“Just like any other structure on campus, there should be a facilities budget line item to conduct regular maintenance and repairs/replacement on the bridge.”

Yes, $1.3 million is a lot if you’re talking a per-student analysis on any given day. But if you multiply the estimated 220 trips per day by the 180 days in a school year over the lifespan of the bridge, the bang for buck is much clearer.

Safety should be the City Commission’s first priority in the discussion followed by traffic congestion, a more complete use analysis and finally costs. Then let’s talk about what equates to “insanity.”

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