The city installed rebar across the bridge to discourage use, but later removed it after hearing that pedestrians were crossing the bridge anyway, creating a greater safety concern. [Facebook photo]

A footbridge connecting Kane Creek Boulevard to Main Street is a vital travel corridor for many Moab residents, but it has been below modern safety standards for decades. Major flooding events this summer further compromised the bridge, and the city closed it to use in August; regular bridge users spoke up on social media and in comments to the city council saying the bridge opens a crucial pedestrian commute for many people. At a Dec. 14 regular meeting, the council approved a budget amendment that sets aside $300,000 for the replacement of the bridge.

City Communications Manager Lisa Church said it’s unknown how or when exactly the bridge was built—no records have been found. At the Dec. 14 meeting, City Parks and Recreation Director Annie McVay said it was installed in the 1980s; City Engineer Chuck Williams said it’s at least 35 years old.

The bridge doesn’t sit on city property; on the west side it’s on the property of St. Francis Episcopal Church, and on the east side it’s on the property of the Mainstay Suites hotel on Main Street. In 2014, access to the bridge was shut down because the property owner at the time, La Sal Oil Company, Inc., wanted to use the property for other purposes and wanted it cleared of pedestrians; later property owners allowed public travel on the bridge.

In 2018, the city spent about $12,000 on basic repairs to the bridge, McVay said at the meeting.

Today the city has easements for the bridge and the pathway, which connects residents in the Kane Creek Boulevard area to businesses and services on Main Street. Without the bridge, commuters must use the less direct route along Kane Creek Boulevard and Highway 191, which are less friendly to walkers and bikers. Many comments on the city’s Facebook post announcing the closure expressed how valued the bridge is by community members:

“I have used this bridge countless times… This little bridge is so useful to people in this neighborhood.”

“Do you even grasp how many kids use that bridge to get to and from school?!”

“My son uses it every day!”

“Without this bridge people have to walk or bike significantly out of their way to cross.”

Moab resident Brandy Bowmaster said she uses the path about once a week to access the Kane Creek Boulevard neighborhoods to visit friends, go to the movies, or reach the Southeast Utah Health Department Office.

“[The bridge] is a super useful corridor to get from the east side of town to anything off of Kane Creek,” Bowmaster said. “The current alternate routes are far from ideal. Main Street is always busy, there are no bike lanes, and cars are often parked in the shoulder, Fifth West is very dark at night and has laughably narrow or nonexistent bike lanes. It is an understatement to say that we need that connection over Pack Creek. The alternatives for bikers and pedestrians are dangerous.”

Longtime Moab resident Charlotte Mates commented at the Nov. 9 City Council meeting to emphasize the importance of the bridge, and to point out that a series of welded rebar crossbars installed by the city to keep people from using the bridge created an increased safety concern. She described watching an elderly pedestrian trying to negotiate the crossbars to carry groceries across the bridge. The crossbars have since been removed.

Williams and McVay told the City Council that the bridge has been a concern for years. Its decking and railings do not meet modern safety codes, and the footings have been damaged by past flooding events; following the Pack Creek Fire this summer, exceptional flooding events further undercut the abutments, and officials expect post-fire effects to continue to intensify flooding events in the next several years.

Church said city officials recognize the importance of the bridge to the community and want to keep it accessible, they just need to find the money to replace it.

“We don’t want to take that bridge away from people,” said Church.

Quotes for a replacement bridge range from $300,000 to over $1 million, McVay said.

“Any minor repairs to the bridge would probably not last very long, so they wouldn’t be worth the time or the money, and they definitely wouldn’t bring it up into any sort of compliance,” McVay said. While the bridge cost seems high, Williams noted that a vehicular bridge in the same area would likely cost in the neighborhood of $3 million.

The city looked into grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources immediately following the Pack Creek floods, but replacing the footbridge did not meet eligibility requirements for those grants. Williams said that past requests to the Utah Department of Transportation to help fund replacement of the footbridge had been denied.

Instead, McVay has identified a possible grant from the state Office of Outdoor Recreation that could award up to $150,000, with a 50% match from the city, and will be awarded in June.

Finance Director Ben Billingsley proposed an amendment to the city’s 2021-2022 budget that sets aside $300,000 of city revenues toward replacing the bridge, without depending on the possible grant funding.

“It’s been identified that this does serve a critical need in the community and so we’re hoping to get a quick resolution, even though it is pricier than we anticipated or hoped,” he said.

Councilmember Mike Duncan questioned the need to close the existing bridge in the interim, saying he went and examined the state of it himself.

“I don’t understand fundamentally what was so dangerous about the bridge in the first place,” he said at the Dec. 14 meeting. “Unless you’re dead drunk, I don’t think you’re going to fall over into a creek that’s a foot deep.”

Williams said that he and the city’s insurers had examined the bridge this fall and determined that the decking floats in flood events, the railings are too low and not of standard construction methods and materials, and the abutments had been dangerously undercut.

The budget amendment will allow the city to move forward with pre-construction design and planning while also pursuing the grant from the Office of Outdoor Recreation. The planning is likely to take months in any case; Mayor Emily Niehaus said the timing of the June grant may work out well, pointing out that the city is more likely to be awarded the grant with a “shovel-ready” project with planning in place.

Councilmember Rani Derasary suggested that temporary repairs be made to the existing bridge to make it usable in the meantime before the replacement is installed.

“It’s very clear to me how heavily people in the community depend on this bridge, so I think it’s incumbent on us to make sure that they have access to that bridge,” Derasary said.

“Not everybody has the privilege of using a car to get to City Market and other things,” she commented. “I do feel like it’s our responsibility to find a way to make that bridge… usable to them in the interim until we replace it.”

The council voted 5-0 in favor of the budget amendment funding the replacement of the Pack Creek footbridge.