The future of Athens’ famed “Murmur Trestle” remains as obscure as Michael Stipe’s lyrics.
The public is split on whether to repair or replace the partially demolished bridge over Trail Creek—part of the Firefly Trail that’s under construction between downtown Athens and Winterville—and so are ACC commissioners.
Consultants presented three options for the trestle in May: Concept A, rebuilding it with new wood and adding a new steel deck on top; Concept B, restoring a portion of it with modern steel arches on either side; and Concept C, shoring up what’s left of the trestle and building a new S-shaped steel bridge intertwined with the older bridge. Concept A would be the least expensive to build and Concept C the most expensive, but the opposite is true for maintenance, so over the long run costs would be similar—about $4 million to $5 million.
“What we heard from the public, quite frankly, is they would be happy with any of these concepts,” said Beth Tucker of consulting firm Kimley-Horn.
About 400 people offered input online, at public hearings or at community events, and support for each of the three concepts was fairly evenly split, with a slight lead for Concept A. An online survey attracted responses from all over the world—possibly because it was promoted by R.E.M. fans on social media—with half of online respondents preferring Concept A. People who attended public hearings tended to prefer Concept C. A handful of people also supported tearing down the trestle entirely and replacing it with an ordinary pedestrian bridge, which is not an option officials are considering.
At a July 9 work session, commissioners were split between concepts B and C, with only Mayor Kelly Girtz preferring Concept A. “That grid image of the existing trestle is iconic,” Girtz said. “I love that visual.”
Edwards asked about the possibility of a suspension bridge next to the trestle. Kimley-Horn’s Eric Bosman said he’d heard that suggestion, as well. Consultants looked at a suspension bridge over the Reedy River in Greenville, SC and found that the cost would be “enormous,” Bosman said. “It’s not anywhere close to the realm of cost we’re considering with these other options,” he said.
As part of Athens’ first railroad, the trestle is a historical landmark in its own right, but it became something of a tourist attraction after R.E.M. used a picture of it on the back cover of its 1983 album Murmur. R.E.M. fans rallied to save the trestle in 2000, when railroad company CSX began tearing it down. However, since then, it has been left to rot, as ACC negotiated to buy the railbed and the rails-to-trails project slowly worked its way through the federal approval process. Now, three-quarters of the wood is no longer structurally sound, according to Kimley-Horn engineers. The first leg of the trail, through Dudley Park, opened in 2017.
Kimley-Horn and the ACC Leisure Services Department will recommend a design, host more public hearings and give another presentation to the mayor and commission in October.
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