Each road passing over I-75 in Gainesville has a sidewalk or a bike lane. Each of these is paved, except for one.
At the Northwest 23rd Avenue bridge, a caged walkway with a metal grill surface stands between a pedestrian’s feet and about a 20-foot drop to where cars barrel down I-75 at speeds close to 80 mph.
The sidewalk is an add-on, attached on one side to the overpass, with the rest suspended above the interstate highway.
Some residents choose not to walk, run, or bike over the interstate, believing the walkway is unsafe and fearing for their lives.
“It’s a frightening feeling,” said Theresa Sumrall, former Santa Fe student and current Shands Hospital surgical technologist. “You know you’re probably safe, but you get really anxious.”
Sumrall used what she calls the “death trap” when she took CPR classes at Santa Fe College. Living in eastern Gainesville, she took the bus to Butler Plaza. She took her bike with her because no bus went to Santa Fe that early on the weekend.
Sumrall walked her bike over the “death trap” twice before deciding to walk on the other side of the road against traffic.
Her biggest fear, as she describes, is a freak accident occurring, in which the gate beneath her would give way, plunging her down to I-75.
“Your gut is telling you, turn stop, go back, but your brain is telling you you’re probably going to be fine,” she said.
Sumrall tried avoiding Northwest 23rd Avenue completely by taking her bike through residential areas east of I-75. This is instead of going west to Fort Clarke Boulevard and going back east over the walkway.
She said while avoiding the walkway added 15 to 20 minutes to her commute, it took away a lot of stress for her.
“I would lose a few seconds of my life from my heart beating so fast by taking that route again,” Sumrall said.
Sumrall was not the only resident to express concern about the overpass.
Kristi Muldoon, Santa Fe College nursing student, drives passed the pedestrian walkway on her way to school. Muldoon said she always sees students walking on the path, which makes her nervous.
“It is so close to such a very busy road and there is only a weak chain link enclosure separating them from the many cars,” she said. “The whole structure seems unstable. It does not need to be chain link and look as if it hasn’t been repaired in decades.”
Brian Singleton, Alachua County Engineering and Operations transportation manager, said the overpass was built in 1964, before Santa Fe College’s 1965 establishment.
Besides Santa Fe, Hidden Oak Elementary School and Fort Clarke Middle School are located in the area. Children and their families near the school also use the walkway.
Northwest Gainesville was sparsely populated, and when its population increased, the walkway was added to accommodate pedestrian traffic.
The caged design, Singleton said, was the most cost effective construction method.
“Today, to reconstruct that bridge, it would cost about $13 million,” he said. “To have a separate pedestrian walkway, you’re talking in the range of somewhere near $4 million.”
Singleton said he understands the fears some residents may have using the walkway, but that people should not be afraid.
“Bridges and all of their components are inspected on a regular basis, and any issues found during those inspections are corrected immediately,” he said.
But one resident, University of Florida English senior Daniel Bryant, says the pathway needs maintenance. He said it’s rusting and corroding, and looks old and uninviting.
“A paved walkway wouldn’t be that bad,” Bryant said. “At least then it would make people realize that somebody is paying attention to it and is being careful.”
The county has a long-term plan to build a new bridge and pedestrian walkway that includes four vehicle lanes, a bus lane and an 8-foot, multi-use, paved path for pedestrians. Singleton said the new bridge would be similar to the new bridge at Butler Plaza over I-75.
The Alachua County Comprehensive Plan proposed the project in 2009, but it remains unfunded. Singleton said the county prioritizes funding based on factors such as the cost of the project and the number of people it would impact.
“The county and city have a long list of transportation needs and wants that are not economically feasible at this time,” he said.