Portage residents concerned about possible removal of pedestrian bridge near downtown

PORTAGE, Wis. — Residents who walk and bike across a pedestrian bridge near downtown Portage are concerned its potential removal could make it more difficult for them to get around.

According to the city, the bridge between West Mullett and West Edgewater streets next to the Riverwood Apartments is deteriorating and becoming a safety concern.

For Patricia Jensen and her neighbors — many of whom are elderly and some who have disabilities — it’s a lifeline to the library, hair salons, coffee shops and restaurants.

It was that bridge, in part, that drew her to the apartment building three and a half years ago.

“How are we going to get around?” she asked. “… A lot of people don’t have cars here and they depend on that bridge to get to places.”

Jensen and her neighbors said they didn’t hear anything about the potential removal until a few days ago. They feel like their voices were not heard about how important the bridge is to them.

“We just had a note in our mailboxes that they were going to… that it was a done deal, that they were going to take it down because it needed too much repair,” she said.

Mayor Mitchel Craig said the bridge’s removal was first brought up in 2015 or 2016. Years prior, work was done to extend the bridge’s life.

“It went to the Canal Committee and they received a grant to remove the current bridge and to install a new bridge,” he explained.

Within sight of the old bridge is that new bridge, which Craig said opened in 2020. Riverwood residents, though, say it’s not a suitable replacement, citing its location further from downtown, its limited access from their building and its grooved surface, which they argue is more difficult for those in wheelchairs and those with pets to use than the wooden surface of the old bridge.

Not everyone agrees the bridge’s removal is a significant concern.

Stas Urban, who walks on the bridge every day, says the bridge is “rusty, old and falling apart” and that it should be removed.

“It’s a constant hassle for the city to upkeep this bridge,” he said. “While I guess that bridge isn’t as good of a bridge as people think it is, it’s still there and usable and it’s in better condition than this one.”

Earlier this month, the city had planned to close the bridge to the public beginning this fall and remove it in the spring.

Now, those plans are on hold while city leaders try to hire an engineering firm to weigh their options, “and if it’s not structurally sound – because obviously we can replace the top of the bridge, that’s not the issue – but if it’s structurally sound and if it’s not, how can we as a city repair it and keep the bridge where it currently is,” Craig said.

It’s a temporary win for Jensen and her neighbors, who hope a long-term solution can be found.

“We’re not the only ones that use this bridge,” she said. “A lot of the community does use this bridge and if they tear it down, the elderly are the ones that (are) going to be missing out a lot.”

While Craig said he would prefer to replace the older bridge, doing so would not come cheap. The newer bridge nearby cost around $250,000, and with materials and labor costing more, the mayor said he wouldn’t be surprised if the replacement cost exceeded $350,000.

A number of other hurdles would need to be addressed, he added. Due to newer standards, a replacement bridge would need to be ten feet wide instead of the current six feet width. That would require working with the apartment building on an expanded right-of-way.

City leaders said they don’t have a timeline for when they could know more about if the bridge is salvageable.

Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.