Portions of Wurzbach Parkway will be closed overnight beginning this weekend and for the next five weekends, as Hardberger Park’s Robert L.B. Tobin Land Bridge project moves into a significant next stage with the installation of steel girders over the road.
The parkway will be closed in both directions between N.W. Military Highway and Blanco Road from Fridays at 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. on Mondays through the end of May.
The installation of the bridge’s 16 steel support beams will give residents their first peek at the structure that will unite the two sides of the park that have been separated by the highway since the park first opened in 2010.
The completion date for the $23 million structure has been pushed back a few times since it broke ground in 2018, and the bridge is now scheduled for completion in the fall.
A redesign process delayed construction but was necessary to bring the project within the approved budget, said Paul Berry, spokesman for the City of San Antonio’s Public Works Department. Steel beams were substituted for concrete beams called for in the original design to reduce weight and expense, Berry said. Another cost-saving redesign included reducing the width of the bridge’s elevated walkway from 10 feet to 8 feet, Berry said.
When finished, the bridge will be 150 feet wide and will connect to the wheelchair-accessible elevated walkway that will begin from existing trails on the ground and gradually ascend to the top of the land bridge. To better blend in with the surrounding park, the bridge will be covered in native plants, which will be watered with an irrigation system using recycled rainwater.
Landscaping of the bridge is scheduled to start as early as May, and Berry said the project’s construction contractor, SpawGlass, has subcontracted local company Mundo Verde for the landscaping work. Berry said some of the native plants that may be used include mountain laurel, live oak and cedar trees, sumac, and native grasses.
The bridge is being funded with public and private money, with $13 million of the cost coming from the 2017 municipal bond, and $10 million from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy, which raised the money through dozens of private donations and a grant of $2 million from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The bridge will bear Robert L.B. Tobin’s name in honor of a donation of $1.5 million from the Tobin Endowment.
Wurzbach Parkway currently divides the 330 acres of Hardberger Park into two sections on land that was formerly the Voelcker family dairy farm.
Former Mayor Phil Hardberger, for whom the park is named, was mayor when the City bought the land in 2007 with the intention that it would be a single park. But plans for constructing the section of Wurzbach Parkway that crosses Hardberger Park had already begun when the City purchased the land.
“We had to live with it when we bought the land,” Hardberger said. “And we wanted to get as much land as we could because we wanted it to be a substantial park, so we bought the land on both sides. But that clearly presented a problem, because you had to eventually join it or you didn’t have a park, you had two smaller parks.”
Hardberger said when he learned about the concept of a land bridge he instinctively knew it was the right solution for the park.
“Because there’s land on top of that bridge that you can grow all sorts of plants on, which actually ties in the nature part on both halves of the park, because the bridge itself is part of nature,” Hardberger said. “In due time, it’s going to look like part of the natural landscape.”
Leaving the two sides of the park separated was never a good option, Hardberger said, because it interrupts the trail system for hikers and bikers, and trails are an important feature of the park, which has been intentionally left as wilderness in many areas.
Hardberger said the bridge is important for humans, but also for the animals that live in the park and once roamed a single large area that has now been cut off by a busy, six-lane roadway they can’t safely cross. The drier west side of the park also doesn’t provide animals the same access to water as the east side.
Many land bridges have been built for animals over the past few decades, but Hardberger said the Tobin land bridge would be the only one in the U.S. wide enough for both animals and humans.
Skepticism abounds about whether animals actually use land bridges, but in 2014 Montana State University released data from a three-year study conducted in Banff National Park in Canada that showed animals of all kinds used the park’s underpasses and land bridges hundreds of thousands of times to safely cross that nation’s largest highway.
Hardberger said that providing a safe way for animals to cross makes the road safer for motorists, too, since hitting a deer at 70 mph could destroy a car and possibly send the occupants to the hospital.
City Council members and others have criticized the project as being too expensive and unnecessary. The bridge proposal faced sharp criticism during the municipal bond election in 2017, when $13 million was allocated for it. The bond measure, packaged together with other parks and infrastructure funding, passed with more than 75 percent of the vote, which Hardberger said was a clear sign that residents support investing in parks.
“I think they want a beautiful city, too,” he said. “I think not to want a beautiful city is pretty short-sighted, because we want to be a great city. We would like to attract people to come here, and people who are CEOs of organizations they want to live in a beautiful city. So it’s an investment in the city of San Antonio.”