by J.R. Pinkey, February 2021
MYTH 1: The bridge “just can’t be salvaged.”
This was the original myth that some City of Tulsa officials “sold” to both the public and the media—and some members of the media took it and ran with it.
As recently as October 23, 2020, the Tulsa World wrote, “The city says a 2014 report found that the 100-year-old old bridge to be replaced in the project is structurally unsound and in danger of collapse. Engineers told the city that the choice wasn’t between the new bridge and the old bridge, but between a new bridge and no bridge.” That is not, however, what HNTB’s engineers found to be the case; examination of the actual documents from the time reveals such account to be a completely false narrative stemming, it is clear, from misleading and downright false City statements. Indeed, the entire new bridge “selection process” in 2017 was based upon this myth. A City of Tulsa press release in April 2017 stated, “The original pedestrian bridge could not be salvaged due to structural deficiencies; therefore, the City initiated a public process in March 2017 to collect bridge designs from the public…” In fact, the actual engineering documents not only find that the existing bridge can be rehabilitated, but also include recommendations to bring the bridge “up to a state of good repair.”
Let’s get into some specifics, to make things more clear. In March 2017, a short “Vision Tulsa” video was released featuring City Engineer Paul Zachary, who stated the following: “We’re getting a lot of questions about the Pedestrian Bridge and why it has to come down. We did a study in the fall of 2014 and then found out in July of 2015 that the bridge just had too much wrong with it to be able to use it. The piers are in bad shape and they’re unreinforced, the welds underneath holding the deck have thousands and thousands of welds and they were all cracked, and the steel itself is heavily corroded. It just can’t be salvaged.” In fact, the actual documents, including HNTB’s Rehabilitation Concept Report (not available to the public at the time, and obtained later by open records request), provide recommendations for everything Zachary mentioned, such as pier replacement techniques, methods to mitigate the weld issues, and an anti-corrosion system. Below are some quick report excerpts (see Myth 4 for the piers)…
Report Excerpt – page 5-10 – Corrosion Protection System
Report Excerpt – pages 5-10, 5-11 – Sensitive Welds, Prestressing
Report Excerpt – page 5-4 – Weld Mitigation, New Composite Concrete Deck System
(Note: Engineers don’t suggest putting in a new composite concrete deck system, having increased durability, for a bridge they’ve concluded can’t be salvaged.)
With close inspection of the actual engineering documents, and comparing them to Mr. Zachary’s specific statements in the video, Zachary’s claim that the bridge “just can’t be salvaged” begins to take on a very different light. Unfortunately—but without any reasonable doubt—the man was lying to us.
Here is a quick video pertaining to Myth 1 (as well as Myth 2) and containing the referenced footage of Mr. Zachary.
Zachary’s oversimplification of facts, his flat making bridge-condemnatory statements (“it has to come down,” “it just can’t be salvaged”), his naming off problems without also naming their corresponding solutions, was part of a body of statements apparently designed to convince the general public that building a new bridge was absolutely necessary from an engineering and safety standpoint, as well as the only feasible option from a financial standpoint. Members of the media were told similar things, and such bridge misinformation spread rapidly. (Even now, some members of the media still haven’t realized that select City officials have been lying, and continue to lie, about the existing bridge, unfortunately.)
MYTH 2: Rehabilitating the existing bridge would cost 20 million dollars or more.
Mr. Zachary sure likes this figure. He quotes it to the public. He quotes it to the media. He quotes it to city councilors. He never tells the truth: This figure does not pertain to a straightforward rehabilitation of the existing bridge.
What Zachary’s doing, essentially, is quoting the cost of a hypothetical two-story addition to a one-story house, rather than attempting to give the price of just fixing up the one-story house. The Midland Valley Bridge is a single-deck pedestrian bridge; rehabilitating the existing bridge is not the same task as that of converting it into a two-deck bridge. Zachary’s 20-million figure was the HIGH estimate given for the more complicated hypothetical concept of converting the bridge into a double-deck pedestrian bridge (with the upper deck being for cyclists). Since that concept was NOT implemented, we’ve still got a single-deck bridge. Repairing the existing bridge would, in other words, be much less than Zachary’s “two-story” figure. (The real question is, “How much would it actually cost for me to keep using my one-story house, er, bridge?”) This chart reveals a lot…
In their document from May 2015, HNTB listed most of the “Necessary Repairs” for the existing bridge as coming in UNDER 7 MILLION dollars. Although the list had a few remaining blank spots or points of uncertainty, the July 2015 report provided more information (in that report, for example, Mobilization and Site Prep were listed together at under 1.5 million for the double-deck estimate). All the available evidence indicates that, for a single-deck rehab, a much lower price than Zachary has been throwing around is likely. (The quote of “20 million,” remember, includes an extra upper deck and thus new access ramps to that upper deck, extra upper railing, more concrete, more paint, more lighting, more site prep; also keep in mind that the LOW double-deck estimate was 17.5 million, not 20.) Consistent with the above chart, a local engineer used HNTB’s July 2015 report, which provides some extra information (such as lighting, mobilization, and targeted demo/replacement dollar figures), and calculated that the existing bridge could be completely rehabilitated, single-deck, for less than $10,600,000, as discussed in this previous article. The bottom line: There is VERY STRONG evidence that HUGE savings are possible by keeping and repairing the existing bridge, which (again) is a single-deck pedestrian bridge…but Mr. Zachary and the City of Tulsa just won’t fess up.
MYTH 3: Repairing the historic bridge would cost 70-80% of the new bridge. It is more cost-effective to just build the new bridge.
This has always been a false claim for single-deck rehabilitation, going by the actual written evidence available (see Myth 2). And it’s become an utterly ridiculous claim, at this point. The Gateway bridge was already over budget by up to 7.1 million dollars in November of 2020, as discussed in the Public Radio Tulsa article found here. And it has more recently been admitted that, if (IF) we get shade, it will cost yet another 8 million. How much will the Gateway cost, if promises about the bridge being shaded are kept?
GATEWAY BRIDGE’S POSSIBLE COST WITH SHADE
Do the math:
27.4 million + 7.1 million (overruns) + 8 million (shade, anyone?) = 42.5 million (with more overruns possible)
Let’s assume, rounding up, that it would cost about 12 million to do a single-deck rehabilitation and also reconnect the eastern end of the Midland Valley Bridge to the park. 12 million is about 28% of 43 million. In other words, over 70% savings compared to the cost of building the Gateway.
Deciding to keep the existing bridge, instead of building the Gateway (with shade), could well SAVE at least 70-75%. That’s assuming there will be NO OTHER cost overruns on the ever increasingly expensive Gateway…anyone wanna bet on that? If present patterns continue, the Gateway may well end up many millions higher, perhaps $50 million, and the comparative savings would be even greater.
It is pretty obvious that the Gateway contracts could still be terminated at HUGE savings. They’d lose some money on the design stage, it’s true. But, hey, that’s probably what should happen when the base design is just too expensive (they can’t even afford benches within the base budget of 27.4 million). Quit while the public is ahead; cut the losses ASAP, before it is (really) too late. The Gateway bridge will not only be WAY more expensive than it was supposed to be, but—if they can’t swing enough private funding—it will be a pared-down disappointment.
And remember: If they can’t get enough private funding and so end up killing the shade additions, possibly bringing the Gateway bridge down to a toasty 30-something million, nonetheless, if it’s one bridge or the other, rehabilitating the existing bridge would STILL save over 50%—with the added bonus of pleasant built-in shade. (And if we wanted to get fancy with the original bridge at the entrances, or to add fancy lighting, etc., we’d have lots of extra funds to work with…)
Responsible stewardship of public funds, if it’s one bridge or the other, demands another serious look at keeping the original bridge—an impartial reevaluation of the bridge’s viability, as was indicated by the 2015 documents, ASAP—but there is just too much pressure in the opposite direction; our city government is not working the way it is supposed to.
It is truly sad (and, really, inexcusable), though, that this fiasco (originally based on misinformation) is going to lead to the destruction of a priceless Tulsa icon. If the new bridge is being built, period, keeping the original around as well would sure make a lot of people happier. Move the new bridge to a different location or figure something out…
MYTH 4: The existing piers are cracked and crumbling and this is a very difficult problem to address.
First of all, the actual 2015 HNTB engineering documents state, “Plain concrete piers with large structural cracks behave similar to a stack of unmortared stone, and their behavior cannot be reliably assessed….The piers are likely approaching the end of their useful service life.” Note the use of the word “likely”; it may well be that the piers are STILL safe for pedestrian use. The fundamental issue for the HNTB engineers was NOT that the existing piers were necessarily going to fail (indeed, the bridge was judged, in the report itself, to still be safe enough to be kept open to pedestrians)—the problem was that the remaining lifespan of the piers was uncertain, and the engineers wanted to make sure they would last for another 75 years (especially with another deck going on top of them…just maybe?).
HNTB provided two possible methods with which to completely replace the existing piers. Both techniques are listed as costing 3 million dollars OR LESS in the HNTB documents. (Mr. Zachary, however, wants to keep acting like the existing piers are some kind of insuperable problem hindering his sincere, heartfelt wish to save the existing bridge…)
Report Excerpt – page 5-8 – Pier Replacement
Note that, in the July 2015 report, the cost to replace the bridge’s piers AND bearings comes in near 3 million, as pictured below (the bearings were separately listed in May as costing about $680,000). Also notice, in the chart from May that was presented further above, that the concrete-shell-pier-replacement option comes in at just under 2 million. Pier replacement and the other major single-deck repairs to the historic bridge could easily be covered by existing public dollars, with lots of money left over, by the best evidence available.
Zachary, it seems, wants us ALL to keep thinking about the existing piers as though they are “what we were going to be building upon.” He implied this at the January 27 committee meeting, which is HIGHLY misleading… Brief video below:
REMINDER: The piers, HNTB said, were NOT going to be built upon. They were going to be replaced. Any uncertainties with the existing piers, pertinent to new additions, would thereby have been completely resolved by the new piers. It really is not rocket science, but Zachary’s manipulation of unwary members of the public (let alone the City Council) is worth close scrutiny. There are various subtle and not-so-subtle ways he has been misrepresenting the truth about the existing bridge for years; only some of the available material is being touched upon here.
(It is also worth briefly mentioning, here, that some think the existing piers are still MUCH more serviceable than Mr. Zachary would have us believe, and that they likely could still be used for single-deck pedestrian traffic for some time. HNTB, after all, judged in 2015 that the bridge could be left open, as it was, on its existing piers. This even though HNTB was going to replace the existing piers to guarantee 75 years, and NOT build upon them, if proceeding according to the plans at the time; those plans, again, included adding an upper deck for cyclists to the bridge.)
MYTH 5: Maintenance will cost far more for the existing bridge than the new bridge, over time.
First of all, the actual 2015 HNTB documents contain various rehabilitative recommendations that, if implemented, would REDUCE necessary maintenance in the future. This includes switching over to more durable composite concrete decking, which would eliminate wooden deck warping issues (and would also, the report says, eliminate the need to repair the lower lateral bracing system). Mr. Zachary never gets into recommendations of this kind because they don’t help his fabricated narrative; they undermine it. Such information also doesn’t do anything to help line the pockets of the people expecting to profit from the new bridge (at great public expense). Recall also that the local engineer stated, in this article, “Most of the repairs were from neglect or never painting steel members installed in the past.”
Second, since the existing bridge could be rehabilitated—it appears very clear—for FAR less than the cost of building the Gateway bridge (as discussed above), if the City actually kept the existing bridge and also terminated the Gateway contracts, there would be MANY millions of dollars saved. Some of that money could help with future required maintenance. (All bridges, we know, do require some maintenance.) Other sources of funds could also be secured for Midland Valley maintenance—if anyone were to really try…
Third, note that the Gateway bridge will likely be costly to maintain over time. A local lighting engineer, for example, looked at the Gateway plans and stated that just maintaining the LED lighting system will be very costly as years go by. But officials don’t seem to care how much this NEW bridge is going to cost the public.
MYTH 6: The public voted and approved the demolition or removal of the existing bridge.
First of all, if a mechanic tells you, “We just can’t fix your car, you’re going to have to buy a new car,” and you then agree to take a loan out towards a new car—but then you find out that they actually CAN fix your original car, and for a lot less money, contrary to what you were previously told—should you be forced to relinquish your old car for a new one?
Second, “demolition” was not listed on the April 2016 ballot or in the actual Vision package. Nor was “removal.” “Replacement” was also not listed on the ballot or in the actual Vision package. You know what else? “Bridge” was not even listed on the ballot...
Now the published Vision package (e.g., in the Tulsa World), which included dozens of items, did couple “Zink Dam and Related Amenities, Dam with Recreational Gates & Flume” with “New Iconic Pedestrian Bridge”—but it did not indicate that such would entail the demolition of the original bridge. A “new iconic bridge” might be built in addition to, and not at the exclusion of, the existing bridge. (Or the description might even mean a thoroughly remodeled “new iconic” version OF the existing bridge.) One thing must be stressed: The public has NEVER actually approved the demolition or removal of the existing bridge, that is, the Midland Valley Bridge.
Also, Mr. Bynum stated on January 27, 2021 that the April proposition “…which included $15 million for the new bridge, was approved overwhelmingly by Tulsans” (as quoted in the Tulsa World, January 28, 2021). But what actually happened that day? The Frontier wrote, “Vision Tulsa passed at the ballot box Tuesday, but it obviously wasn’t a vision embraced by most Tulsans. Not if voter turnout is any indication, because Tuesday’s turnout was terrible.” The article, having mentioned the three Vision Tulsa propositions, then specifically addressed the pertinent proposition: “The numbers were worse for the Tulsa County Vision 2025 renewal proposition. Less than 19 percent of registered voters showed up to cast a ballot, according to the Election Board.”
Even with the record low turnout, it again needs be stressed that the April 2016 election did NOT authorize the demolition or removal of the Midland Valley Bridge. Want more evidence to that effect? In 2017, in response to public outcry about keeping the existing bridge (once the new bridge “selection process” had been officially announced), City officials said things to the public along the lines of, “We would like to keep it, but the bridge just can’t be salvaged” (Myth 1), or that it would not be “cost effective” (Myths 2, 3, and 5)—which is a far different thing from saying, “You all already voted on getting rid of this bridge, don’t you remember?” The City didn’t make THAT argument. You know why? It was too close to the 2016 election for the City to even TRY to pull that off. The public’s reply, at the time, would have been, “No we DIDN’T!” And that is correct—the public has never actually decided to demolish or remove the existing bridge. The City, however, HAS decided to demolish the existing bridge, and in order to justify this decision, officials claimed they had no real choice. The video link provided under Myth 1, which you may have already watched, provides some examples of things the City was saying to justify their (THEIR) decision. Below are some examples of real comments made by individuals in 2017 about keeping the existing bridge, and a reply given by the Vision Tulsa account:
The video referred to was discussed under Myth 1.
City officials have by now, of course, talked for years as though the historic bridge simply can’t stay up on its own much longer; we were evidently supposed to think it was about to fall down any minute. That’s been part of their excuse to build new, and that’s probably also part of the reason they want to HURRY UP and tear the bridge down—if they leave it up, as it continues withstanding floods and you name it, their false narrative starts to look worse and worse. An insider has stated, off the record and to an undisclosed contact of PedBridge.com, that the existing bridge would remain standing for DECADES if just left on its own (without any work being done at all).
Above: The bridge withstands the record 2019 flood. Photo by R.B.
Also pay close attention to Mr. Zachary’s statement in the December 9, 2020 Tulsa World article, on page A4: “…what we had to realize was, if we did rebuild it being the way it was, we would still have a substandard trail width for the pedestrians and not necessarily the (required space) for bicyclists up on top.” The City COULD have gotten the Midland Valley Bridge back open and running again years ago. They CHOSE not to. The public’s ability to choose single-deck rehabilitation of the historic bridge, however—using existing public dollars—was simply bypassed by officials. These officials have themselves chosen to demolish the existing bridge in favor of a new bridge, rather than leaving it in place through incorporating it into their new plans. This was NEVER a public decision. The public is being robbed of irreplaceable history, without ever having been given real or fair say about the existing bridge, and millions of public dollars are being used for the City’s and other private parties’ plans. Tulsans are losing historic railroad-tie shade—but, make no mistake, a different brand of SHADE is being provided. As more and more pieces of the puzzle fit into place, the more concerning the emerging picture becomes.
Indeed, as an aside, there are indications that 2017’s new bridge “design competition” may itself have been rigged. Unfortunately, this would fit the larger pattern regarding the City’s conduct in this whole matter. A confirmed member of the bridge committee stated to a PedBridge.com contact, “The winner was selected even before the process was started.” (The winning bridge design was, remember, submitted by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the designers of the Gathering Place.) Another confirmed member of the bridge committee stated, “…we narrowed it down to four entries. Now these were all blind entries; nobody knew who they were voting for…for the most part. The exception being, which I found out later—right?—was the Van Valkenburgh bridge, the one that has been selected. Obviously, Jeff Stava knew about that, because he’d been consulting with them all along on that bridge, and turns out he was paying them to develop the designs.” Same committee member also stated, “…the other thing is, and this is when it sort of became apparent to me, is that certain people were pulling for the Van Valkenburgh bridge; they didn’t like that, you know, I wasn’t even gonna put that in the possibility list.” Same member added, “If you look at it, you know, some of those folks have vested interests….I don’t know if any monkey business was going on or anything, but I mean, you know, you look at like River Parks Authority, well, they are pretty darn dependent now on the Kaiser Foundation and the Gathering Place, right? So it would be highly surprising that their Executive Director would vote, you know, against their [GKFF’s or the Gathering Place’s] wishes, right?” Recall, too, that bridge committee member Michael Wallis wrote in the Tulsa World, December 27, 2020, that “the design was selected that some of us knew from the get-go would be chosen from the start.” His letter is discussed here.
MYTH 7: The Midland Valley Bridge is no longer historically significant due to “modifications.”
A version of this theory was quoted to the City Council at the January 27 committee meeting—a truly low move by engineer Bill Smith and whoever put him up to it. Even more unfortunate, however, was that not one city councilor was perceptive enough (or courageous enough) to challenge, let alone to question, this claim during the meeting. (The public, of course, was simply NOT allowed to participate…) As discussed elsewhere on this site, however, such a claim about the bridge’s historic integrity and significance is utterly flawed. It stems partly from inadequate information in two prior state documents, but was embraced and asserted as a justification for demolition in the more recent paid-for October 2020 report, discussed here, which essentially argues that the circa 1905 bridge can be removed without adversely affecting Tulsa’s historical authenticity or character. The October 2020 report relies on inadequate information and makes downright false claims. Mr. Nathan Holth of HistoricBridges.org, among others, takes issue with it; he states that the existing bridge “stands out as increasingly rare due to its long, multi-span configuration.” He says that “it remains a very long example of its type and despite any alterations it retains the original truss lines that convey this engineering achievement.”
The October 2020 report was commissioned by none other than the Tulsa Community Foundation—of which, by the way, Councilor Phil Lakin is CEO. Mr. Lakin is also Chair of GKFF, and GKFF Construction is listed on the actual Gateway bridge contract. Mr. Lakin, of course, failed to recuse himself from the Pedestrian Bridge portion of the January 27 committee meeting, instead promoting both the new bridge and the removal of the historic bridge—violating the City of Tulsa’s Ethics Code by not recusing himself from a matter in which he has undue personal and organizational, if not financial, interest. Lakin went so far as to state that the historic bridge would be an “obstruction” to views of the new bridge…
It is becoming all too obvious that private preferences and profit motives are behind the official “narrative” and decision to demolish the original bridge in favor of building the Gateway bridge, irregardless of public opinion (but at large public expense). The “loss of historical significance” claim about the Midland Valley Bridge is not a legitimate result of thorough, unbiased scholarly research—it is just the opposite. What has been contrived is far beneath the word “research.” In reality, anyone who argues the Midland Valley Bridge is no longer historically significant, that it can be demolished without adverse effect to Tulsa’s historical integrity, is either ignorant or lying.
The Midland Valley Bridge is probably Tulsa’s MOST historic structure. The railroad—the oil boom—River Parks. Tuckabatche, a member of Tulsa’s 1830s Council Oak founding, granted the easement! The bridge uniquely spans Tulsa’s past and present. (See J.D. Colbert’s statement and other pertinent material on this site.)
MYTH 8: It is “too late” to save the existing, historic bridge.
Come on. It’s there. Would it be too late if George Kaiser wanted to save it? Would it be too late if G.T. Bynum wanted to save it? Even if the Gateway is 100% going to be built, the historic bridge could be saved if anyone in the right (or wrong?) places really wanted that to happen. Move the new bridge somewhere else if you have to! It’s not REALLY “too late” to make adjustments to the existing plans and save the bridge, it’s just TOO INCONVENIENT for those set on existing plans.
They talk about permits. Permit applications can be changed. There’s no public petition urging leaving the permits, or the Gathering Place bump outs, or any other design elements as they are—but people are pleading, “Save the bridge!” Listen to the public outcry. Read the many petition signer comments and see the sense—the virtue—of making something happen to save the bridge, of preventing this Tulsa travesty. Solicit redesign donations if necessary! Do something to keep the bridge, or a portion of it, intact; do something to honor the legitimate public concern (which goes well beyond petition signers). Do not simply say, “We just can’t do it.” (Do something, even if it ends up involving something less desirable like relocating a significant portion of the bridge and repurposing it…)
Why, indeed, couldn’t the new bridge (assuming it is being built) be moved some distance upstream, perhaps half a mile, thereby keeping the historic Midland Valley Bridge in place (and potentially forming something of a bridge loop)? Wouldn’t this make more sense than demolishing irreplaceable history? What a River Parks official stated via email, regarding such a suggestion, is that “Holly-Frontier refinery owns the west bank. Throughout the design process they were adamant that the only place they would allow the west end of the bridge to land was in the same spot that the old bridge did. Too risky to excavate other places.” This statement raises environmental concerns, at a minimum. Just how much contamination is there on the west bank near the refinery? (It begs the fundamental question, should we really be trying to get more pedestrians in that area to begin with?) But the other side of the coin is: there are certainly safety measures which could be followed by workers (in accordance with OSHA standards), allowing for excavation somewhere else on the west bank, if a new bridge is indeed going to be built. When plans are fixed in the minds of those intent on carrying them out, however, such discussion is largely academic.
Countless generations will be robbed by this sadly forced demolition. The public’s concerned voices have even been repeatedly, unethically suppressed by the Tulsa City Council, which has flat refused any regular meeting discussion items about the bridge petition for months (this including phone or email comments to be heard during a regular meeting), despite the bridge petition being on the Tulsa World front page, on TV, as well as large numbers of phone calls to council support staff from citizens expressing concerns, etc. The City Council would not even show a short video featuring bridge petition supporters at the January 27 committee meeting—this after supporters were told the video WOULD be shown by a councilor who had seen it. The “Oscar-winning” performance, which “played off” the deliberate decision to omit the video from the meeting, can be seen here:
Officials just can’t afford the truth. Facts have long been misrepresented and some want to do everything they can to keep it that way. The engineering reports have long been, and continue to be, significantly distorted by officials. The economics and the price comparisons continue to be significantly distorted by officials. History is now being significantly distorted, too. They are pulling many strings to try and keep the bridge myths alive, and are using a heck of a lot of OUR money the way THEY want, while substantively ignoring public demand to save the—OUR—Midland Valley Bridge.
Officials have already failed us—barring a last-minute miracle. They have failed to do what is right, and this demolition will be to their lasting historical shame.