It might have slipped past you in December—it was only $50,000 out of $8.1 million, after all. But there it was, in the amendment to the annual budget that the Knoxville City Council approved a few weeks back: the money that might bring a new pedestrian bridge downtown, a bridge that would connect Fort Sanders with the heart of World’s Fair Park.
Might, mind you.
That $50,000 from the city’s surprise tax surplus will not be funding a bridge itself. Bill Lyons, the city’s senior director of policy and communications, isn’t even really comfortable calling it a project.
“This is just to take a look and say, ‘Is a bridge there feasible?’” Lyons says. “Or is this a non-starter from the get-go?” He notes the funds are only for a feasibility study and some preliminary design work. He says the city doesn’t have a vision for the bridge—not a specific location, not a concept of how it would look, not an idea of what it would cost.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” Lyons says. “How much would it cost? We don’t have any data of any kind on this.”
Still, the idea of a pedestrian bridge that would rise above the railroad tracks and make the park that much more accessible isn’t a totally new idea. Cathy Irwin, who just stepped down from the presidency of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association, says she heard about the concept years ago, though she was surprised to learn the feasibility study was actually going forward.
“I guess we would have to see some proposed designs, but I really think, as someone who has lived in Fort Sanders for a long time, and who works downtown, that any way we could ease the connection from the Fort to downtown would be great,” Irwin says.
Right now, there isn’t easy access to the park from Fort Sanders. The Knoxville Museum of Art’s executive director, David Butler, says he spends the summer pointing swimsuit-clad children to the fountain from the parking lot on the hill.
“Kids in bathing suits and towels walking across railroad tracks just seems like a bad idea,” Butler says. “There needs to be an easy, clear connection from the parking lot to the park.”
And while Lyons says the city isn’t set on a specific location, one route the study will definitely be considering is by the museum. Which Butler would love.
“We’re hopeful it goes forward. It’ll put us right in the center of traffic, rather than right to the side,” Butler says.
But will the rest of the public share Irwin’s and Butler’s enthusiasm for a pedestrian bridge, a project that Lyons says will be “not inexpensive” (which was as close to any figure as he would get)?
“Again, part of the feasibility study is to hear public interest in this,” Lyons says. “Then it’s a matter of where it would fit in the various priorities with the new mayor and council. There are lots of ideas that compete for limited dollars.”
As of yet, even the study itself does not have a timeline, nor has anyone been contracted to begin it. But Irwin says just the budgeted funds have her excited.
“It would be really interesting to see ... Why not at least take a look at it?” Irwin asks.