Texas’ Hill Country Bridges
In the fall of 2010, I was afforded the opportunity to travel to the hill country of Texas where I was not only able to photograph and document the rapid urbanization of Austin, but explore the countryside. For a week, I cycled throughout the entire region, over its many winding roads, Colorado River crossings, urban canyons – and rented a vehicle for one day to travel westward to visit three endangered crossings. Below is a summary of those highlights beginning with Austin.
The South Congress Avenue Bridge spans Lady Bird Lake. It is the fourth iteration of a bridge at that site, and is home to the largest summer colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the world.
Prior to a fixed bridge, three ferries operated across the Colorado River in Austin: Grumbles’ on Barton Creek, Stone’s on Waller Creek and Swisher’s at Congress Avenue. The first bridge to cross the Colorado was a tolled pontoon bridge at Brazos Street that was completed in 1869. It was destroyed in a flood just eleven months later and the three ferries resumed operations. But the death of Elizabeth Boyd Swisher in 1875 ended one of the three ferries. A permanent, tolled wooden bridge was completed in that year.
The Swishers’ owned significant acreage south of the Colorado River for their family farm along the San Antonio Road. Two years after the wooden bridge was completed, the family subdivided 23 acres of their farm for development. Acknowledging the potential for growth in the southern reaches of Austin, Swisher allocated an 120-foot right-of-way through the center of the 23 acres, with the new roadway laid out in a direct line with Congress Avenue on the north side of the river. In 1883, a 120-foot span of the wooden bridge collapsed under the weight of a herd of cattle. Seeing the need for a stronger crossing, the wooden bridge was replaced with an iron crossing constructed by the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio that was opened on January 22, 1884 at a cost of $74,000. The span, all privately funded and designed by C.Q. Horton, was high enough to allow for the highest stage of flooding along the Colorado. It was also the first bridge across the Colorado that was not tolled. The Travis County Road and Bridge Company and the city of Austin purchased the bridge on June 18, 1886.
But by 1891, the Travis County Road and Bridge Company refused to accept future maintenance responsibility of the crossing, and negotiated an agreement with the city for it to take over the bridge’s operation. The city completed repairs in 1892 and 1897 – the latter which required reflooring the bridge, a task that took until 1901 to complete. The iron truss was repainted a year later.
In 1907, a group of southern Austin businessmen began discussions on replacing the iron bridge due to frequent congestion on the narrow crossing. Plans for a new concrete arch bridge was formalized and a bond was issued in the following year. During construction, the old iron truss was shifted onto temporary piers while the new bridge was built in its place. The new crossing, which included a 50-foot wide span with two interurban railway tracks and overhanging sidewalks, was completed on April 3, 1910 at a cost of $208,950.10. Sections of the old iron bridge were reused in 1915 and 1922 to rebuild the Moore’s Crossing Bridge over Onion Creek – which still stands to this day.
In 1956, the South Congress Avenue Bridge’s roadway was widened to four lanes to accomodate more automobile traffic. It was widened and rehabilitated again in 1980. Today, the bridge is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony consisting of Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats, numbering between 750,000 and 1.5 million, reside under the bridge deck in gaps between the concrete components. The bats are migratory, spending the summers in Austin and winters in Mexico. At dusk, the bats emerge and fly across Lady Bird Lake towards the east for food. The daily ritual attracts as many as 100,000 tourists annually, resulting in an economic impact of $7.9 million per year.
Below: From my hotel room.
Below: Via kayak.
Below: At dusk, showing the massive amounts of bats that flood out of the bridge.
The South Lamar Boulevard Bridge also spans Lady Bird Lake and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed from 1940 to 1942, the bridge was the second permanent bridge to cross the Colorado River and featured six open spandrel concrete arches. Significant growth in Austin, especially south of the Colorado River, resulted in the South Lamar Boulevard Bridge becoming overburdened. It featured ten-foot traffic lanes and narrow sidewalks, and no provisions for cyclists. The bridge’s location between downtown and a revitalizing Seaholm District, and the ever-growing park system to the south led the city to press for a bond issue.
In the early 1990s, the city secured $950,000 in matching federal funds to widen the South Lamar Boulevard Bridge as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). In 1995, the city signed a contract with HDR Engineering to study the project alternatives. All six options included various widening projects for South Lamar Boulevard Bridge. Meetings were held with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Texas Historical Commission, the city and others.
Early on, the Texas Historical Commission indicated that it did not want the existing South Lamar Boulevard Bridge altered as it was a historic structure. Attendees of public meetings regarding the bridge project also indicated that adding more lanes to the span was also not an acceptable solution. In March 1998, the city council directed HDR to explore the option of designing a separate pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Colorado River. Many felt that such a span would not solve the ongoing woes of the South Lamar Boulevard Bridge, but the city believed that it would create a safer crossing for pedestrians and cyclists.
A workshop with key stakeholders was held in May 1998 and fifteen concepts were developed that included cable-stayed, arch and beam bridges, and the relocation of an existing, historical truss bridge. One of the more innovative concepts presented was the “Double Curve” concept that was developed by Chas Tonetti, Tere O’Connell, Jamie Wise, Rush McNair and Chris Hutson. Their concept was based around the “paths of travel.” The architect stated that the bridge would have no straight lines and that it would be shaped around an hourglass, which resulted in a curved span with helical ramps and curved connectors.
Four finalized concepts were shown to the city council in September 1998 and the “Double Curve” was selected as the preferred span with only six months left before the matching ISTEA funding would expire.
The site plan for the bridge included,
- Unit A: The southwest ramp, a two-span continuous unit ranging from 86′to 120′constructed of horizontally-curved composite plate girders. with a width of 23′.
- Unit B and C: The southeast ramp, a two-span continuous unit constructed of a 48′ span of composite rolled beams and 111′span of composite plate girders, with a width of 23′.
- Unit D: The central three-span continuous steel plate girder units 114′each, with a variable width of 31.3′to 42′.
- Unit E: A triangular unit with a northeast ramp consisting of a single span unit 104′long and 21′ wide; a single span unit 109′ long and 26′ wide; a single span unit 49′ long and 18′ wide, all constructed of composite plate girders or composite rolled beams.
- Unit F: The northwest ramp, a four-span continuous steel plate girder with two composite steel girders.
- Unit G: A continuation of the northwest ramp, a nine-span, conventionally-reinforced concrete slab and T-beam unit. The combination of Units F and G resulted in a free flow crossing over West Cesar Chavez Street.
The construction contract was bid twice. The first round included four bidders who were all heavy bridge construction contractors and all exceeded the maximum budget for the project. That forced the city to eliminate Units F and G, the northwest ramp, from consideration from initial construction and the bids were released for the second time. Only two bidders put in estimates and a contract was awarded to Jay-Reese Contractors of Austin in April 2000.
Groundbreaking occurred on May 15, 2000 and the bridge was completed ahead of schedule on June 16, 2001. A grand opening celebration was held that included hundreds of runners. The bridge was named the James D. Pfluger Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge in honor of the Agustin architect who conceived the trail system on both sides of Town Lake.
Construction began on March 15, 2010 on Units F and G which had been eliminated in the initial bidding process. The project involved the closure of West Cesar Chavez Street in order to build the overpass in one weekend. The 207′ extension was completed in February 4, 2011 at a cost of $3.5 million. Minor work continued until March 1. The extension featured Brazillian hardwood railing called Ipe Ironwood, 32 directional lights and landscaping.
An extension of the bike path north under the Union Pacific Railroad is under the planning stages. Work on the underpass has been estimated to cost $900,000 for engineering and $4.5 million for construction. The underpass is designed to be 15 feet wide and several yards long, but the project will involve the relocation of several hundred feet of railroad track. As part of the project, the city has proposed a bridge over West 2nd Street.
Nearby is the South 1st Street Bridge that was constructed in 1951. The span was last rehabilitated in 1992.
The Missouri Pacific Railroad bridge over the Colorado was constructed in 1936.
The first crossing of the bridge was the International – Great Northern Railroad (IGN) that existed from Hearne to Longview. It was extended to Rockdale in 1874 and south Austin on December 28, 1876. The first bridge over the Colorado River was a wrought-iron double intersection Pratt through truss built on limestone piers that was completed in 1881. Jay Gould acquired control of the IGN and the company was leased to the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway Company (MK&T, Katy) for a period of 99 years beginning on June 1, 1881. The lease was cancelled on March 2, 1888 and the line remained the IG&N until May 1, 1901 when it became a part of the Calvert, Waco & Brazos Valley Railroad (CW&B).
The Colorado River bridge was partially replaced in 1904 when the superstructure was removed and replaced with the current plate girder superstructure. The work shortened the original span length with the addition of new concrete piers.
The CW&B was put into receivership in 1908 and a new company, the International & Great Northern Railway Company (I&GN) purchased the foreclosed company in 1911. This lasted until 1922 when a new company was chartered – the International – Great Northern Railroad Company (IGN).(1) The new IGN became a part of Missouri Pacific (MP) in January 1925 when the MP sought out the railroad after it was nearly taken over by a rival – the St. Louis – San Francisco Railway. The IGN and MP were independent operations until March 1, 1956 when the the IGN was sold to the MP. In 1981, the MP was merged with the Union Pacific Railroad.
Nearby is the Katy Railroad trestle and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway across Shoal Creek in downtown.
The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad also known as the Katy, constructed a mainline branch to Austin that opened on July 14, 1904. It split from the Katy main at Granger, proceeding southwest to Austin and San Antonio. In 1925, the Shoal Creek timber trestle was reconstructed. The new bridge featured eleven spans with walkways on the north and south sides of the crossing.
In July 1964, the Katy lost a contract to a trucking firm to carry mail for the U.S. Postal Service. That resulted in the discontinuation of passenger service – which carried mail, from Dallas to San Antonio. In 1976, the Katy was abandoned from Georgetown south to Pershing at the junction with Austin Western Railroad, and the line through downtown Austin was disused some time after 1988.
The Lance Armstrong Bikeway, a major east-west cycling route, was first proposed in 1999 by local cycling advocate Eric Anderson. It was recommended by the Urban Transportation Commission, the Planning Commission, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Environmental Board in July. On October 26, 2000, the city council approved an advanced funding agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for the Austin Crosstown Bikeway, and was awarded $3,203,163 in federal funds from the Statewide Transportation Enhancements Program funds. Planning began in December. The federal funds provided 62% of the construction cost, with the city paying the remainder.
On July 27, 2006, the city authorized an endorsement agreement with Lance Armstrong for the bikeway to be named the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. Construction on the bike path began in June 2007.
Today, the South 3rd Street Bike Path carries the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. The UP west of the Austin Convention Center to Tower 205 by the Colorado River Bridge has been dismantled, although there are plans to rebuild the line for passenger service. The Shoal Creek trestle was rated structurally deficient and is scheduled to be rebuilt with a 44-foot span for two light rail tracks that would also carry two automobile lanes and a pedestrian path. Preliminary engineering plans began in January 2010.
One of my long cycling journeys took me to the hill country west of central Austin. I biked Texas Loop 360, also known as the Capital of Texas Highway, across Lake Austin and the Colorado River. The Pennybacker Bridge is named for Percy Pennybacker who designed bridges for the Texas Highway Department and who was a pioneer in the technology of welded structures.
Construction on the bridge began in late 1979 when the contract was let to Clearwater Constructors of Denver, Colorado. The erection of the steel was completed by Bristol Steel of Bristol, Virginia and was complete by July 1982. The bridge utilized U.S. Steel’s Corten steel which produces a weathered rust finish to blend in with the surrounding terrain and rock outcroppings. Over 600 million tons of steel was used in the bridge, and 3,400 short tons of concrete was used in the bridge deck. The four-lane crossing was dedicated on November 29, 1982 by Austin mayor Carole McClellan and opened to traffic on December 3 at a cost of $10 million. It was the second bridge of its type in the world at the time of its completion. The Pennybacker Bridge received the 1984 Federal Highway Administration’s Excellence in Highway Design award and in 1992, the Austin members of the Consulting Engineers Council of Texas selected the bridge as the most innovative example of Austin architecture.
I completed a 75 mile loop through the hill country, which was much more rugged than I had imagined. Along the way, I came across a low water crossing over the Colorado for Texas Ranch to Market Road 620 that was constructed in 1938. The concrete tee-beam bridge was bypassed in 1942.
In 1936, Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and the United States Bureau of Reclamation chose a site 20 miles upstream from Austin for a primary flood control dam for the river. The construction contract was awarded to the Brown & Root company and a groundbreaking ceremony was held on February 19, 1937 in the wild and remote ranch lands of central Texas. By January 1941, the generators went into operation at the hydroelectric plant that was a part of the project and the dam was finished in May 1942. This included the relocation of Texas Ranch to Market Road 620 to the top of the dam. In 1995, the Mansfield Dam crossing was bypassed with a four-lane alignment to the south. After September 11, 2001, all traffic was restricted on the dam; it is now open only to service vehicles.
The 1995 bypass.
l rented out a Jeep and headed west. Along the way, I came across the Lick Creek Ranch Bridge on Texas Route 71 at Lick Creek Ranch that crosses the Pedernales River. The lengthy deck truss was constructed in 1949 as a two-lane roadway. In 1986, Texas Route 71 was widened to four-lanes and the bridge was widened with an accompanying conventional girder crossing.
I also came upon the historic Buchanan Dam Bridge on former Texas Route 29 that crosses the Colorado River between Burnet and Llano counties.
Initial planning for the Colorado River bridge came in 1929 when the Texas Highway Department (THD) was studying various routes for Texas Route 29 in the Buchanan Dam region. The dam’s construction was not yet underway, but the THD understood that the existing roadway would be underwater by 1937. Bids were released in November 1936 and a contract was awarded to the Austin Bridge Company of Dallas for $182,000 and construction began on February 4, 1937. THD chose to use four 200-foot riveted Parker through trusses built by the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company of Des Moines, Iowa that rested on solid, reinforced concrete piers and eleven I-beam girder approach spans fabricated by the North Texas Iron & Steel Company of Fort Worth that were placed on concrete bents. The railings were custom designed and were built of steel channel rails attached to curved-top posts. The posts were built from steel railroad cross ties that were modified by cutting, bending and welding them to form a curved top.
Construction was completed on September 30, 45 days ahead of schedule and at a cost of $188,000. The federal contribution via BPR was $94,000. The crossing was dedicated on October 16 as part of the dedication ceremony for the Buchanan and Inks dams. It included an address by U.S. Public Works Administrator Harold L. Ickes and Texas Highway Commissioner Robert Lee Bobbitt.
The Colorado River bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 10, 1996 and was bypassed in 2003 with a 1,530-foot steel girder crossing. Currently, the crossing is open to pedestrians. It remains one of four highway trusses with lenticular nosing that survive in the state.
The Marble Falls Bridge over the Colorado River carries US 281 and was constructed in 1936. A bridge was first constructed at this location in 1891 but was destroyed in a flood in June 1935. A ferry operated across the river until the cantilever deck truss was constructed in 1936.
Planning for a replacement span over the Colorado was first discussed in 2005 when the Texas Department of Transportation began communications with the city of Marble Hills. In November 2009, funding for the $30.1 million project was secured and ground was broken on October 25, 2010 for the Marble Falls Bridge replacement project, and construction began in November. The Marble Falls Bridge replacements were designed by FINLEY Engineering Group for Archer-Western Contractors of Arlington.
The new bridges, one for southbound traffic and the other for northbound, will be a three-span variable depth cast-in-place segmental bridge with spans of 274-feet, 410-feet and 274-feet with a deck width of 47-feet. The box depth will vary from 23-feet at the interior piers to 6-foot, 6-inches at the end spans with variable superelevation of up to 5.5%. It is being constructed using the balanced cantilever construction method with the end spans constructed on falsework and consist of 5,000 cubic yards of concrete with a weight of 11,000 tons.
The deck will support a 10-foot outside shoulder, a 3-foot inside shoulder, a six-foot sidewalk, a one-foot barrier from the sidewalk to the travel lanes and two one-foot outside rails.
The first bridge is scheduled to be finished in the fall of 2012 as part of phase one. In phase two, the old bridge will be cut apart and removed and replaced by an identical span that was constructed in the first phase, which is projected to be completed by 2014. The estimated project cost is $28.6 million.
I ended the trip with a visit to two rural abandoned bridges. The Joppa Road Bridge is located on Joppa Road (CR 272) in Burnet County. The span, also known as the Middle Gabrial Iron Bridge, was constructed in 1911 by the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Company of Leavenworth, Kansas. It was bypassed in 2005.
The last bridge was a bit of a shocker to discover. How this span was able to remain standing with any sort of traffic is beyond my belief. The Shady Grove Road Bridge is located on Shady Grove Road (CR 200) in Burnet County. The pin-connected Pratt through truss was constructed in 1907 and bypassed with a new span in 2000.
The piers look fine, right?
With that, I conclude my Texas infrastructure photography for at least the next year. Look for future updates from South Korea and West Virginia later this month and into December!