I wasn’t supposed to be where I went.
A recent afternoon I escorted myself to the edge of the uncompleted pedestrian-bicycle bridge over I-40. The bridge is the missing link in the otherwise magnificent American Tobacco Trail, a nearly 22 mile-long winding path that draws walkers, riders, joggers, nature-lovers, lovers and, occasionally, unpleasant lawbreakers.
The trail is but a tantalizing 270 feet from being done. Finis. A safe passage over the cavalcade of cars on the interstate below. A way to make the trail whole.
These days, those 270 feet seem more like a bridge on the River Kwai. Trouble from day one.
After reading there was yet another delay, this one due to a significant safety concern with the fencing, I had a significant concern: maybe we should think twice before walking across this missing link, even after it is done.
The fencing is apparently a hot mess and we’re told now the painting is askew, too. If they can’t get the painting right, I definitely don’t trust the parts meant to protect people from falling on to the interstate below.
It’s said another couple of hundred thousand dollars should fix the latest problems, perhaps by December (I’m taking bets). Reportedly, the whole bridge was once estimated to cost $650,000 when it was first conceived during the Eisenhower administration. Sorry, I meant about 14 years ago.
I decided it was time to go to the scene of the screw-ups. I got the idea at 70 mph, about 3:30 in the afternoon, when I saw a worker traversing the would-be bridge.
I strategically waited until after 4 o’clock, when the coast was clear. Then I parked at The Streets at Southpoint, grabbed an iced chai and began the trek up the newly paved and completed greenway on that side of I-40 and Highway 54.
Soon I strode up to a big, blinding red sign with white lettering. It sat about 30 paces from the edge of the unfinished crossing.
DANGER! DO NOT ENTER.
Exclamation notwithstanding, I boldly walked where no true pedestrian has walked before: past the DANGER! sign and to the orange barrels and waist-high screen sorta thing that would not have prevented any man, woman or animal from proceeding on to the missing link.
I was not tempted to cross.
I recalled another announcement, the one from March. A support pier for the bridge was found to be two and a half feet too high. This discovery, after it was burrowed 50 feet into the ground, if I understand the engineering (and I don’t).
I stood and snapped pictures for posterity, just in case the 270-foot stretch is never cleared for takeoff. And above the annoying noise of speedy cars just before rush hour, I pondered why this particular project has such a dense track record of delays, cost overruns, confusion, indiscriminate snafus and safety problems.
That’s when a distinguished-looking man on a fancy bicycle rode up. Regis Rulifson had traveled the recently finished portion of the American Tobacco Trail that now runs for several miles southward. He wanted to see if the much-ballyhooed bridge was ready.
The cyclist is an operations executive for a major construction equipment company. He’d had to pass the DANGER! sign to reach the barrels where I was, a few yards from the bridge proper. As he stood straddling his bike, Regis shook his head.
“Doesn’t look good,” he said.
Together, we contemplated what it was truly costing the public, this bridge between nowhere (if I understood the accounting, and I don’t). Maybe we’ll find out when it’s finally done.
Regis didn’t even take his helmet off. He turned and rode away in the descending sun. Moments later, a woman in a pink and black sweatsuit with a cellphone to her ear walked up. She stopped short of the DANGER! sign, and I can’t say I blamed her.
“I heard there were structural problems,” she told me. “Wanted to see for myself.”
She saw the unsightly site.
“Yeah, looks like they better get some stuff fixed up here.”
And off she went, back where she came from.
About then, I had a disturbing vision: what would happen if the pedestrian-bicycle bridge police saw me up there toying with the unsafe bridge, snapping photos, enjoying iced chai and entertaining visitors and such?
I realized that if they came for me, sirens blaring, there would be only one way to run.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.