West Ada

He’s the reason the city is throwing $2.3 million toward an Eagle Road bike bridge

Biking shoulder to shoulder with SUVs barreling 55 mph down Eagle Road doesn’t give Rick Tholen the anxiety it once did.

He knows it should. He’s heard horror stories of pedestrians witnessing accidents just feet away from them on the bridge that crosses the Boise River on Eagle Road just south of State Street. The sidewalk, wide on either side of the highway, ends abruptly at the bridge, which has forced Tholen onto the shoulder, where he has biked past discarded mufflers and counted his luck to not have trailed the car that lost it.

But even though Tholen, 68, has grown used to the treacherous route between his house and the rest of Eagle, he doesn’t think others should have to.

Tholen has become Eagle’s strongest advocate for a new pedestrian bike bridge that would connect Eagle’s north — with its downtown, shopping centers, and all of the city’s schools — to its rooftops in the south.

For now, the only real way to traverse the river is via car. But after six years of urging from Tholen — and a push from developers — Eagle is moving forward with plans to build a $2.3 million pedestrian and bike bridge to link the Greenbelt and other paths that run on both sides of the river.

Planning the bridge

Cost estimates have increased dramatically beyond the solution that Tholen proposed back in 2013. He had a simple idea to make his ride along the bridge safer: Could the Idaho Transportation Department, which manages the bridge, add a concrete barrier between the car lanes and the shoulder so pedestrians could cross the bridge without worrying about being hit?

Tholen called to ask but was told that engineers didn’t want the 10-foot shoulder any narrower because wider shoulders can help provide a refuge for maintenance and emergency vehicles or cars that break down.

What about reducing the speed limit over the bridge from 55 mph to 35?

No good for traffic, he was told.

So why not just add a bridge, Tholen proposed. He sat down with the then-mayor of Eagle, Jim Reynolds, who liked the idea and told him that to make it work he’d need more people than just himself.

Rick Tholen, a 68-year old bike activist who’s worked to get the city of Eagle to build a bridge that will connect either side of the greenbelt in Eagle. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

On the mayor’s advice, Tholen formed an organization called Walk and Ride Eagle, brought two of his friends onto the board, found a few clipboards and started collecting signatures in support of a pedestrian connection between north and south Eagle.

He got a boost of support from Dennis Baker, a developer who owns several buildings north of the bridge site and looks forward to more foot traffic coming in.

Tholen also found support from Mayor Stan Ridgeway, who was elected in 2016.

The bridge idea was gaining traction — so much so that COMPASS, the regional planning agency, funded a feasibility study for the project.

Together, the city, Walk and Ride Eagle, Two Rivers Community and the Idaho Transportation Department proposed a bicycle pedestrian bridge adjacent to the west side of Eagle Road. At the time, they envisioned the bridge would connect to the shoulder of the Idaho 55 bridge, spanning 240 feet. An engineering firm estimated the cost at $1.3 million.

In May 2018, the federal government awarded the city $132,000 for the bridge, about a tenth of the estimated cost. The city decided to start saving over the next five years for the $1.2 million in remaining costs, with hopes to build the bridge in 2023.

In December 2018, the city commissioned an engineering firm to complete the design work for the bridge. During that process, engineers found that ITD never approved attaching the bike bridge to the existing Idaho 55 bridge.

ITD spokesman Jake Melder said that the 2016 study provided a concept, not a final design.

“The separation of the structures is required because the existing ID-55 bridge is not designed to accommodate additional loads on the west side,” he wrote in an email.

Now, city planners estimate that the cost for the new bridge is $2.3 million, nearly twice their original estimates. The city could be forced to pay the difference if it can’t get state or federal funds.

City Council’s decision

Two weeks ago, planners asked the City Council to decide whether to move forward with the project.

Some balked at the high price tag. Could the city, Councilman Kenny Pittman joked, crowdsource money from residents on GoFundMe?

In the end, the council voted to approve the project, with the goal to save up money from the general budget over the next several years to fund the project. Nichoel Baird-Spencer, a city planner, said she would work with ITD to apply for federal funds for the project, too.

Ridgeway endorsed the bridge idea. “We have to do something to connect this division through our town,” he said at the meeting.

EAgle Pedestrian Bridge
Eagle started to make plans for a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge in 2016, when it was estimated to cost the city $1.3 million. Now, engineers estimate the cost could be upward of $2.3 million. City of Eagle

Pedestrian and biker safety

After six years of effort, Tholen wonders if he’ll get to use the completed bike bridge in his lifetime.

At this point, he’s worried more about future generations.

“When people think about their youth, they remember how liberating it is to be able to get out on their bike and do stuff — to go get an ice cream without mom or dad having to drive them,” he said. But without a bike bridge, families won’t take the risk to get across the river any way but by car.

“No parent is going to let their kid make that crossing alone,” he said.

Between 2010 and 2014, ITD recorded 1,091 crashes along its bridge, according to the 2016 feasibility study. Of those crashes, 10 involved cyclists, and three resulted in serious injuries.

While he waits for the bridge to be widened, Tholen wishes that ITD would do more to make the shoulder of the bridge safer now for the 100 or so pedestrians and cyclists he estimates use it every day.

That number could be larger with a bike bridge, he predicts.

“It’s not about how many people do cross it now,” he said. “It’s about how many would cross it with a bridge there.”

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the spelling of Nichoel Baird-Spencer’s name and title. She is city planner, not a city engineer.

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.