Spanning then and now

Did you know that the High Trestle Trail Bridge is exactly half a mile long? Brenna Fall sure knows. It’s just one engineering detail that Fall (civil engineering B.S. 2003) can point out.

Now the capital improvement program manager for the City of Cedar Rapids, Fall was a consulting engineer working with Snyder & Associates when the bridge first opened to the public in 2011.

“Part of what I love about being a civil engineer is seeing projects come to fruition,” Fall says. “Construction is messy for a while, but I love seeing what we’ve designed and planned for be used or driven on or enjoyed by pedestrians or bicyclists. It gets people out and about where, otherwise, they may not have the space or the facility to be active.”

Since Snyder & Associates was the principle lead design firm for the bridge, Fall had a first-row seat from concept to completion. If the bridge itself wasn’t enough of a challenge, it was a part of a 25-mile stretch of trail.

“As you looked at the tremendous width of the Des Moines River, it was such a large gap that I think some people felt it may be insurmountable,” Fall says. “It was easy to think, ‘we will never be able to get that crossing completed.’ As the trail was constructed mile by mile, and momentum built and construction continued to be successful, that faith in the bridge actually being built really grew.”

The three-year project started in 2009, with five counties and many entities taking part. One of the key players involved was the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF).

“When a railroad abandons a railroad grade, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation can come in and purchase that right-of-way when the communities might not be able to do that in a timely manner with the funds that are available at the time,” Fall says. “At a later time, when the local jurisdictions have been able to gather the funds necessary, they can purchase that right-of-way from the INHF.”

Lisa Hein is INHF’s senior director of conservation programs and was also heavily involved in the bridge’s construction.

“Since it’s constructed on an old railroad bed, the High Trestle Trail Bridge reminds us of how the communities in Iowa were first connected before roads,” Hein says. “If you look at a historic map of the state, the cities and towns were settled on the railroads. This corridor is actually a second-generation corridor because the first route wound down the river valley and crossed the Des Moines River much closer to the water level. The Milwaukee Railroad improved this line across Iowa by straightening out the alignment in spots and building the bridges bluff-top to bluff-top so that the trains could run easier and faster.”

For Fall and Hein both, the bridge is designed with a focus on the importance of getting back to our roots, whether that is historical or natural.

When you ask Brenna Fall (pictured)  what drew her to engineering early on, she would say that she enjoyed “the layout of things, the puzzle” of constructing something from the ground up.

“It’s a place for people,” Hein says. “It seems there is a lot of construction to build spaces for our cars, but not enough places just for people. The High Trestle Trail offers access for us to easily enjoy the outdoors.”

When Fall looks back at her work on the High Trestle Trail Bridge, she also sees a connection to people rather than just a bridge. She hopes she’s setting the stage for future engineers to find a new source of career inspiration.

“When you ask job candidates, ‘how did you hear about civil engineering? What made you become a civil engineer?’ so far, the answer has always been, ‘My dad,’ ‘My uncle’ or ‘My grandpa was an engineer,’” Fall says. “I’m hopeful that, someday, maybe a generation away, the answer will be ‘My mom,’ ‘My aunt’ or ‘My grandma.’”

 

Announcer
Welcome to Factor Analysis, an in depth conversation of engineering knowledge from the classroom to the field, and topical issues surrounding work and life from an engineer’s viewpoint.

Kate Tindall
Welcome, as always, to another episode of Factor Analysis. I’m your host Kate Tindall and I’m joined today by Brenna Fall. Brenna, remind me what year you graduated from Iowa State.

Brenna Fall
2003.

Kate Tindall
That’s right. So not too long ago.

Brenna Fall
No, but long enough.

Kate Tindall
That’s true. That’s true. And you majored in civil engineering. Is that correct?

Brenna Fall
Yes.

Kate Tindall
Okay, so let’s just start off with a little bit of background information. Tell me about where you work, what you do there, things like that.

Brenna Fall
Since 2017, I’ve worked with the city of Cedar Rapids. I am the Capital Improvement Program Manager. So my team works on street projects, trail projects, a lot of sidewalks. And bridges.

Kate Tindall
Trail projects. Ooh. So you you taking all that information, later on our, our listeners will actually find out that you worked on the High Trestle Trail bridge, so you’re taking that experience and you’re using it still in your job today.

Brenna Fall
Yes, very much.

Kate Tindall
When did you first know that you wanted to be an engineer? And I always love to ask this of women engineers, especially, because you’re still kind of a rare breed in the in the profession.

Unknown Speaker
Yep. Yep. And likewise, when I interview job candidates, I also like to ask, when did they know or why did they want to be a civil engineer? So turnabout is fair play. I knew when I was a junior or senior in high school, I had taken an interior design class in high school and really liked the layout of things the, the puzzle that is trying to lay out a house, and so I thought I wanted to be an architect. And then I realized or learned through the art teacher at school, how much art is involved in architecture and decided quickly that was not for me.

Kate Tindall
So, you weren’t you weren’t an artist.

Brenna Fall
I’m not not really an artist. No. But I did very much like the layout still. And I’ve always loved maps. And so just in talking to, to people at that time, learned about civil engineering and how that dealt with the layout of things or could and so then I took a basically a CAD drafting course my senior year…

Kate Tindall
And for people who aren’t as familiar what, what is CAD?

Brenna Fall
CAD is Computer Aided Drafting. So it’s, you know, just drawing with a computer program, and, you know, you spoke about how women are sort of a rare breed, at the time in that class when I was in high school, I was the only girl and so you know, kind of gave me a taste of what was to come, but I did enjoy it very, very much. It was one of my favorite classes, so kind of knew I was on the right track with civil engineering.

Kate Tindall
When you go to Iowa State, was that the same experience that you were the, one of the only women in the room?

Brenna Fall
Yeah, there was probably a core group of four or five of us, I would say, in most classes of, you know, 30 students or so. I don’t know how that is now, if it’s still the same or not, but that…

Kate Tindall
It’s getting better. It’s trending towards getting better, but we still have a ways to go. And I think that’s true across the nation and across the globe, in lots of professions. Tell me a little bit about some of your favorite projects as an engineer that you’ve worked on. Where you are working currently, but also where you have worked in the past.

Brenna Fall
Yeah, project specific, in my role with the city, I don’t get into the detail of many projects. I get to touch a lot of them and make decisions about which projects we do at a given time. I would say just in general, part of what I love about being a civil engineer is seeing projects come to fruition and you know construction is messy for a while, but love seeing what we have designed and planned for be used and driven on or enjoyed by bicyclists and pedestrians, and that’s part of where the trail work is, is really some of the most fun projects because it gets people out and about, where otherwise they may not have the the space or the facility to to be active.

Kate Tindall
You talk about people enjoying your work. And I think the High Trestle Trail, as we hinted at before, is one of the best examples maybe of people truly, Iowans especially, enjoying the work that engineers do, so I’m gonna hop right into the trestle trail bridge. How did you get involved in the first place, walk us through that.

Brenna Fall
There were several communities involved in that. Five, five communities and four counties as well as a large conglomeration of people came together to see that project through. As a consulting engineer at the time, we had to propose on the project. So it’s a competitive process to try to

Kate Tindall
…and when you said we, sorry to interrupt, but when you say we, Snyder and Associates?

Brenna Fall
Yes, yep.

Kate Tindall
Snyder and Associates.

Brenna Fall
Yep. So we had put together a proposal and were selected by that, you know, large group of people that were focused on that project and, and just started going, going from there, basically, with project development and fundraising. fundraising was a big part of that project, because the project had received earmark funds from the federal government, which don’t really come available anymore like they did, which is unfortunate because that’s a really great way to get some projects done. But they had, that project had received those funds and it wasn’t enough, basically. So we we started, we made little strides and little projects here and there to gain momentum, and just continued to fundraise and fundraise and fundraise all the way through until we had enough money to finish the bridge.

Kate Tindall
And you were working with a lot of team members, right? For example, you have the uh, tell me if I’m wrong, but the Iowa Natural History Foundation, is that right?

Brenna Fall
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. They played a key role in that project because what they can do is, when a railroad abandons a railroad grade or rail banks, a railroad grade in this case, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation can come in and purchase that right of way from them, when the communities may not be able to do that in a timely manner with the funds that are available at the time, so they can come in, kind of reserve that right of way, and then at a later time, when the local jurisdictions have been able to gather the funds necessary, then can purchase it from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. And they played a key role, really all the way through the project, not only with that right of way acquisition, but project management, you know, they helped with a lot of the fundraising efforts, public outreach, things like that. So they were they were key throughout the whole project.

Kate Tindall
Right. And leading into that question or leading maybe out of that question. So the INHF was a very important and helping with this, but there were lots of team players, because it was a large project.

Brenna Fall
It’s very large.

Kate Tindall
Talk to me a little bit about the unique portions of the project, or maybe some of the possible challenges that was presented by this monumental project.

Brenna Fall
One of the first challenges was, was interesting. It was kind of in the, the politics of what I would call small town history,

Kate Tindall
Oh, politics. What are those?

Brenna Fall
Yeah, so, you know, when we were starting out, like I said, there were five cities and four counties involved in the project. And it was very much a team effort. They all had signed an agreement stating that they would work together to see the project completed fully no matter what, what pieces of it were built first or last. So very, very large commitment on behalf of all those communities. But beyond that, you know, we had monthly meetings with the entire group to make sure that we did stay on track and everybody was was fully involved in the process all the way through. Well, at the beginning, there were small disagreements, I’ll say, on where that group should even meet. Something as small as just meeting logistics, were interesting in the beginning. And as the momentum for the project grew, and things started to be constructed, and everybody started to see, you know, wow, this is this is really going to happen and this is actually happening pretty fast. Those, you know, small disagreements on things like that really went away and that the teamwork involved was tremendous.

Kate Tindall
Because when you started out, you talk about it’s, it’s easier to see a project happening when you, after you’ve gotten going on it. Right? It’s, it’s much harder to visualize a project when it’s not really there. Yeah, and when you started, correct me if I’m wrong, but there was really nothing besides the railroad pillars that held the old bridge, is that correct?

Brenna Fall
Yep. So, you know, the the trail itself was 25 miles long, and INHF had reserved the right away. So we knew, we knew we had room for the trail to be constructed. We knew we had the entire alignment, you know, kind of ready to go. So that was in place. And then yes, that was the, the piers from the bridge where the only thing left. So, as you looked at the tremendous width of the Des Moines River, it was such a large gap. And I think some people felt like insurmountable maybe, like we will, we will never be able to get that crossing completed. So as, again, the trail was constructed mile by mile and momentum built and fundraising continued to be successful, that, that faith I guess, if you will, in the bridge actually being built was, was really growing.

Kate Tindall
And for people who haven’t visited the bridge, obviously you should. But if you haven’t visited the bridge, it’s a very long bridge. It’s a complex bridge. Do you remember the the span the how long it is from point A to point B?

Brenna Fall
It’s half mile long. Yeah, in fact, if you go out there, if you’ve seen pictures there are, I would say monuments, I guess, at either end, and we specifically designed those to be exactly half mile apart. Becasue we’re engineers.

Kate Tindall
Just like the good engineers that you are, right? If you go out and measure it, which none of us will, it’s exactly a half mile. Um, talk to me a little bit, finishing out our discussion of the of the trestle trail bridge in the trestle trail. Why is this project unique? Why is it important for Iowans and people who are traveling in our state as well to know that this project is there, in your opinion?

Brenna Fall
I think from a very technical aspect, again, it’s a 25 mile long project, and mileage on trails of that sort is really incredible. When you you don’t ever have to leave the trail for 25 miles. I mean, that’s, that’s just not something that you find in many places. The fact that it was built so quickly, was also incredible, and kind of unheard of at the time, you know, how the funding came to be and all the teamwork again of you know, nine different entities coming together and, and completing a project like that, all the way through from beginning to end, with the amount of commitment they all had. And then, it’s become such an icon for the state. There are so many images of it both during the day and at night because of the lighting that really just captured people’s attention.

Kate Tindall
And it plays into the state history as well, right?

Brenna Fall
Definitely speaks to the history of the coal mining of the area. And obviously railroads themselves play a huge part in the history of the country, not only Iowa. So the historical reference in the design of the the architecture on the bridge is very interesting, too. And it’s just neat to have a place that people want to go to and experience for themselves after seeing images.

Kate Tindall
It’s absolutely outstanding. It’s really a beautiful, beautiful testament, to the history of Iowa and like you said, the history of the United States in general. Summing up our talk today, women engineers, like we said, are unfortunately still a minority. Why do we need women in engineering? What would you maybe say to a young woman who’s thinking about going into engineering, but it’s not sure.

Brenna Fall
You know, women have a tendency to kind of follow their heart, and even though engineering is, is a technical profession, there is still a need for a connection to people. And I think having a mix of gender in the profession just lends itself well to being able to talk to people and reach people through the work that we do.

Kate Tindall
And then I’m obligated to ask this because I work at Iowa State. How did your Iowa State experience put you on the road to success in your opinion?

Brenna Fall
I think I was fortunate to have good advisors while I was here. I also, you know, worked on campus and off campus all the way through school. So I got to know people, you know, in the College of Engineering, and also through my internships and such, kind of kept my focus on graduation and kind of the next step and that, that helps make everything real, I think, while I was in, in college

Kate Tindall
Sounds like you just you made a lot of good connections. You did a lot of real world experience. And obviously when you got out into the workforce it served you well.

Brenna Fall
Yeah. Yeah.

Kate Tindall
That’s it for this episode of Factor Analysis. Brenna, I want to thank you so much for coming on and also sharing the interesting construction history and the engineering that goes behind one of Iowa’s most iconic bridges.

Brenna Fall
Yes, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Kate Tindall
I’m going to remind all of our listeners to please subscribe to us wherever they listen to podcasts, and I look forward to talking to you again on another episode of Factor Analysis.

Announcer
Factor Analysis is produced by Iowa State University’s College of Engineering for a list of ways to keep up with the college including more podcasts, social media and apps go to engineering.iastate.edu. Music by Lee Rosevere and use under Creative Commons license.

 

One thought on “Spanning then and now

  1. As part of ISU Extension from 1999 – 2004 one of the projects I worked on was the development of bridge that could be used as a teaching aide. The bridge was nearly 6 ft long and 18 inches wide that would support nearly 500 lbs while its own weight was less than 10 lbs. It was made of aluminum, wood with aluminum bolts. There were 105 pieces if you count the bolts but only 3 different shaped pieces. We produced 10 of these bridges for extension offices around Iowa and I trained hundreds of educators in how to use them with students from 4 to 90 years old. My goal while developing the bridge and supporting curriculum was to promote engineering for learners everywhere!

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