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Firefly Trail Bridge Proposal Blends Old and New

Consultants hired by Athens-Clarke County to design a bridge over Trail Creek incorporating the famed “Murmur trestle” have submitted a final proposal that will go before the ACC Mayor and Commission next month.

Based on feedback from an ACC-appointed user group and the public, consulting firm Kimley Horn came up with a design that involves rebuilding the remaining portion of the wooden trestle, bolstered by more modern steel-and-concrete arches on either side.

The trestle was part of the first railroad into Athens, and was made famous in the early 1980s, when R.E.M. put it on the back cover of its debut album. Owner CSX started to demolish it in 2000, but R.E.M. fans around the world rallied, and the local government purchased what was left, with plans to turn the historic railroad into a walking and biking trail.

Almost 20 years later, segments of the Firefly Trail from downtown to Dudley Park and Dudley Park to the Loop have been completed, with just one gap at Trail Creek. Abandoned railroads are often converted into trails because they’re flat—making walking, jogging and biking easy—but users now have to cut down 85 feet to the existing footbridge over Trail Creek and back up again.

Eventually the Firefly Trail will run to Winterville, and from there a private group is raising funds to extend it through Oglethorpe County to Union Point in hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction like the Silver Comet Trail in West Georgia.

Because the trestle has been unmaintained for so long, engineers found that about 80 percent of the wood would have to be replaced to make the trestle structurally sound. But none of the wood is original, anyway—the trestle was designed in a modular fashion, so rotting portions could easily be replaced. 

“It will be new wood basically replicating the trestle in its current form,” consultant Eric Bosman told the audience at a Monday public input session.

The final design was based on Concept B, one of three concepts presented to commissioners and the public in July. Other concepts involved rebuilding the trestle with a new steel deck or building an entirely new bridge weaving around what’s left of the trestle. 

“There was no singular concensus opinion,” Bosman said. But several themes emerged from public input, including a desire to preserve the historic and cultural value of the trestle, build a functional trail, and consider environmental concerns and the impact on the surrounding neighborhood, as well as cost.

The SPLOST-funded bridge will cost about $3.3 million, with minimal maintenance costs over the next 25 years.

“While we want to come up with something that’s iconic and inspiring, it has to be done on a fixed budget,” Bosman said.

The design also includes an observation deck so users can take in the view from above the treetops.

Another public input session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19 at the ACC Planning Department auditorium on Dougherty Street. ACC is also accepting comments online.