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Austin students to help design bridge
100 engineering pupils will assist with pedestrian overpass for Alabama 20
By Deangelo McDaniel for
John Godbey/
Austin High School engineering student Patrick Sawyer takes notes as he listens to Downtown Redevelopment Executive Director Rick Paler talk about a proposed pedestrian crosswalk over Wilson Street.

Some of Austin High School’s brightest students will play a significant role in a project city leaders say is designed to bridge the riverfront and downtown Decatur.

Almost 100 students in the school’s engineering academy will help design and engineer a pedestrian bridge to make it easier for citizens to cross Alabama 20.

The BP Foundation is providing a $100,000 grant, primarily because students are involved with the project, Downtown Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rick Paler said Friday.

“I’m just so honored to know that I am going to be part of something that will be permanent in my hometown,” 10th-grader Caitlin Shelton said.

“We have some preliminary designs that match buildings that are already in downtown.”

Paler said the first phase, which is for design, will cost a little more than $100,000.

“We’re not dealing with construction, because the plans are not funded, but what the students do will be practical,” Paler said. “They are going to help our engineering team design bid-ready plans.”

Superintendent of Education Ed Nichols praised the partnership.

“Anytime we can take the opportunity to expose students to the real world, it’s a win-win for everybody,” he said.

The bridge, proposed in an “Envision Decatur” study completed about a decade ago, is recommended near Doc Jordan apartments and the First Baptist Church parking lot.

Wally Terry, Decatur community and economic development director, said the City Council does not know construction cost.

“We want this bridge to be the gateway to downtown and the river,” he said.

That’s language city leaders used in the mid-1920s when the two Decaturs — Albany and New Decatur — provided money to construct Keller Bridge over the Tennessee River.

The bridge, which opened in 1927, allowed Decatur to do away with its ferry system and create the commercial district on Sixth Avenue.

“Even with the traffic signals, it’s very difficult to cross the highway,” Scott Schoel of Schoel Architects said.

His firm is working on the project and will meet with students during some of their site visits.

Schoel said preliminary plans are to design a bridge with elevators because it has to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Austin teacher Alesia Doran said courses in the Engineering Academy are part of Project Lead The Way, which requires students to get on-hands experience through community projects.

Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or

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