West Columbia, tired of waiting for Columbia, is preparing to build a long-planned pedestrian bridge across the Saluda River near I-26.
The city last week advertised for engineering bids for a free-standing bridge just downstream from the I-26 bridge.
Working together, West Columbia and Columbia made it this far in the process six years ago, getting a design for a pedestrian bridge that would connect to the underside of the I-26 bridge. But Columbia never signed off on the project, as financing for the Lower Saluda Greenway fell apart in a battle over funds from the Congaree Vista tax increment financing district.
About $2.5 million in federal highway enhancement funds has been set aside for the pedestrian bridge at I-26 since 2006.
“We didn’t want to leave that money laying around much longer,” said West Columbia city manager Jenny Cunningham.
The decision to go ahead with the bridge project comes as river access issues reach a peak.
Riverbanks Zoo and Garden this month cut off access to the Saluda River through its parking lot, about a mile downstream from the new proposed bridge.
If Richland County voters approve the penny sales tax referendum in November, nearly $8 million of that money is slated for the Lower Saluda Greenway. That trail would go downstream from I-26, around the zoo and end with a pedestrian bridge from the zoo area across the Broad River to Riverfront Park.
But even if Richland County voters turn down that referendum, their neighbors across the Saluda plan to go ahead with their portion. In that case, the pedestrian bridge would lead to an access point but no extended trails on the east bank of the river.
The S.C. Department of Transportation had concerns about the 2006 plans to attach a pedestrian bridge to the I-26 bridge, and West Columbia officials decided to seek new designs for a free-standing bridge much like the one that connects the zoo to the botanical garden.
Walkers and cyclists will be able to access the new bridge from the West Columbia side of the river on either side of I-26. The plans call for a small parking area in a clearing along McSwain Drive and, on the other side of I-26, possibly a connection with the back section of the Lexington Medical Center parking area, according to River Alliance executive director Mike Dawson.
The River Alliance is a non-profit organization formed in part to guide development of trails along the region’s three rivers. About 9.5 miles of the Three Rivers Greenway has been built, but the section along the Saluda River from the zoo to the Lake Murray dam has been stalled.
“It’s good news that West Columbia is jumping off and moving on this,” Dawson said.
The West Columbia bridge would lead to an area just upstream of a beautiful rocky shoals area and a large island that split the river channel. The view downstream from the bridge should be spectacular in late fall when the leaves turn colors on the hardwoods lining the banks. Of course, the upstream view — and sound — will be dominated by I-26 traffic.
The area just downstream of the planned bridge already is popular for fishing. The local Trout Unlimited group maintains a small parking area in the River’s Edge subdivision off McSwain Drive, but it is for members only.
The long-range plan is for people to have a choice at the end of the new pedestrian bridge — turn right and head toward the zoo and Columbia or turn left and head toward Saluda Shoals Park and the Lake Murray dam.
A large portion of the approximately five miles of proposed greenway from I-26 to Lake Murray already is completed in the 2.25 miles of riverfront trail in Saluda Shoals. The remaining incomplete sections are mostly in unincorporated Lexington County.
View Proposed pedestrian bridge over Saluda River in a larger map