Story and photos by Srianthi Perera

Gilbert has secured the funds to construct a pedestrian bridge that will add connectivity not just to the town, but to the region.

The bridge will close a small gap in the Western Powerline Trail, where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses, located in a mainly industrial area a short distance from Neely Road and in the vicinity of Neely Traditional Academy.

“Although people can cross the trail, it’s illegal to cross the railroad there,” said Rod Buchanan, the Parks and Recreation Director for the town. “When you do this project, you will make it legal to cross the tracks.”

The bridge will be designed by September and constructed next year.

About 1,000 feet long and 30-feet high, it will serve as one of the gateways to the Heritage District for those biking, walking and riding from the area west of the railroad.

It will also help those from Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and other cities to widen their pedestrian commutes.

Western Powerline Trail is part of the 110-mile Sun Circle Trail that loops around metro Phoenix. In Gilbert, it runs east-west along Western Canal in between Elliot and Guadalupe roads. On the west it connects to Price Road near Tempe (Hwy 101 prevents its continuation) and on the east, although the Western Canal stops at Lindsey Road, the trail continues to just east of Power Road, steps away from Mesa.

The trail is continuous up to Lindsay Road and has a few other gaps thereafter, although it’s not illegal to go over them as they are simply unimproved stretches, Buchanan said.

“We wanted to connect the trail systems; we have a detour that would send people to Elliot Road and back up so they could get to the Heritage District,” said Toby Crooks, project manager. “That’s not very practical.”

The detour route is about 1 mile long, and although a wayfinding sign has been installed, it’s often ignored, town officials said.

During an online survey and in-person community solicitation at the Farmers Market regarding the bridge, 59.8 percent of responses indicated the bridge will change how the participants use Gilbert’s trail system and/or access the Heritage District. (The town also noted that a majority of those who responded were ages 35-54, and 60 percent were female.)

The survey also asked respondents to choose the bridge design from three concepts:

Riparian (inspired by water and riparian grasses, this concept looked at manipulating steel to create a sense of movement through water and wind);

Deco (inspired by the architectural forms common in the Art Deco movement, this concept blended rusted and painted steel with the forms and geometries of this period); and

Railroad (inspired by the railroad heritage of the area, it highlights some of the iconic shapes and imagery of the train and rail).

The Railroad concept received 53.4 percent of the vote.

The town applied, and was successful in securing, a Federal infrastructure project grant of about $2.8 million via Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) in 2015. The funds will go toward the bridge construction.

In addition, Gilbert will spend a total of $1.3 million ($420,000 from its General Fund and $912,000 from previous project reimbursements) on its design as well as other ancillary expenses and future maintenance.

MAG Transportation Planner Jason Stephens said that every two years, the organization distributes about $26.5 million among the various municipalities for bicycle and pedestrian projects. However, “we get about 200 percent of that in projects requested,” he said. “It’s very competitive.”

Stephens said that only the best projects are funded and Gilbert’s project was graded – and ranked – high.

“One of the criteria is connections,” he said. “One of the things that we want communities to do is connecting points of interest. When we talk about a regional connection, we also have to think long-term.

By having this bridge, it allows people to get over the railroad, and safely, and it also allows somebody to continue on.”

“Gaps are typically the highest value for the dollar in terms of cost benefit analysis,” Buchanan said. “You could have a small gap that connects miles and miles of trails. Closing those gaps is the best use of available funding.”

Earlier, the town tried to close the gap by obtaining an at grade crossing from Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), which is a level crossing where a railway line crosses a road or path at the same level.

“UPRR won’t allow an at grade crossing unless you give up some existing ones,” Crooks said. “That’s something the town cannot support because we need the crossings that we have.”

In addition to the bridge, the town will also construct a small trailhead; a beautified area to take rest or for people to await others.

By improving these trails with enhancements such as pedestrian bridges, pocket parks, trailheads, drinking water fountains and other such amenities, designed with recreation, connectivity and safety, the town is trying to provide residents an alternative to getting into a car and driving. Residents have options to walk, cycle or even ride a horse to a destination instead.

The Western Powerline Trail connects to Heritage Trail and Santan Vista Trail as well as to many of the town’s parks and two riparian preserves.

Crooks said that the bridge and trailhead to come may be a catalyst for improvements to that part of the town, now featuring mainly industrial manufacturers.

“It’ll be small. But if things work out and development incurs, then this would be a nice focal point,” he said.