Not one train or person has crossed the rail trestle that extends over the Kanawha River on the West Side of Charleston since the 1980s.
Charleston Urban Renewal Authority board members inquired during a June meeting why the rail trestle hadn’t been repurposed or demolished. It turns out the trestle has a host of structural issues that would need to be addressed before it were to be used again.
In 2003, the city of Charleston began talks about repurposing it as a bike trail. City C ouncil had several studies and reports done on the trestle, and a coalition called The Friends of the Kanawha Trestle Trail formed in support of it. However, after a report came back saying necessary construction would cost $17.5 million, the proposal died.
It came up again when the West Side Community Renewal Plan was presented to CURA in June. But James Yost and David Gilmore, the consultants working on the plan, said they don’t recommend to use the trestle itself. Instead, they suggest creating a trail underneath the trestle using its right-of-way. However, Yost said these are all suggestions and that he has not been in talks with CSX.
During the presentation, Charleston City Council member and CURA board member Keeley Steele asked: “If it has all these structural problems, are we going to just leave it there?”
However, there isn’t anything the city can do about it because CSX, a railroad company, owns the bridge. CSX did not provide comment after multiple inquiries from the Gazette-Mail.
The railroad company in 2006 offered to give the trestle to the city and to sell its 5 1/2 acres under fair market value. However, the city never acquired the trestle after the structural report came out.
“The river piers are made of poor quality concrete by today’s standards and are deteriorated significantly,” according to the report. Inspectors found spalls (flakes) up to a foot deep, cracks and no evidence of steel reinforcement in the massive piers. There was also some damage underwater, according to a previous Gazette-Mail article.
The bridge was in fair condition, according to the final report, which the Gazette-Mail obtained through FOIA. But due to its large size, small repairs over the entire length add up to about $13 million. If the city decided to paint it the grand total would be $17.5 million.
Earlier estimates indicated a much smaller price tag of $3.2 million. A total of $6 million was raised with state and federal grants and contributions from the city and businesses, said Dennis Strawn, a long-time supporter of the project.
The bridge was built in 1907, and 1956 was the last time any construction was done on it. Strawn said he believes this was recent enough.
“The bridge was rehabilitated during or before all of the major wars,” Strawn said. “The federal government was throwing money around to make sure it was on good footing. There’s minimal deterioration of that bridge. They built them to last.”
If the bridge were to be converted to a trail, it would carry a much lighter load than it was initially designed. Originally it was built to carry 568,000 pounds over a distance of 104 feet, according to one of the several reports done on the bridge. This is six times more weight than the estimated amount needed for it to become a bike trail.
But the reports indicated enough work needed to be done on it. The final price tag was just too high, City Engineer Chris Knox said.
“It was just cost prohibitive, and it would cost even more now,” Knox said. “I’d like to see it demolished or rehabilitated, but I don’t think the City of Charleston will ever fund a $20 million project there.”
Strawn said the city did not need to pay to have all the repairs done at once.
“We were going to open it up section by section,” Strawn said. “The way these projects work is you put your foot in the door get public support and apply for grants, then ask for more and you get more.”
However, then-city manager David Molgaard said it would be ill-advised and ultimately a large liability for the city.
“It’s not Charleston’s issue; we never took possession of the bridge, and I think it would be foolhardy to do so without sufficient funding to rehabilitate it to the point we could actually use it for pedestrian or bicycle use,” Molgaard said earlier this month. “Quite frankly, if we just acquired the bridge and try to piecemeal it then in my opinion, we would be faced with a very large liability.”
If the City of Charleston acquired the bridge and could not come up with enough funding to rehabilitate it, then it would be responsible for the demolition, which could cost about $7 million, Molgaard said.
Molgaard added that the trestle was supposed to be a part of a larger trail system. Instead of losing the grant money, they allocated it toward the bike and pedestrian trail along the Kanawha Boulevard, ultimately contributing to a trail system.
“I think we made every effort we could to secure funding to make that project work,” Molgaard said. “It just wasn’t going to happen in the time frame we had available to use the money we had secured.”