South Street Bridge redo moving forward

Sept. 23

By Steven B. Ujifusa
For PlanPhilly

During the past year, the South Street Bridge Coalition has been negotiating with the Philadelphia Streets Department and PennDOT to revise the replacement design for the crumbling South Street Bridge.  For the past several years, the 1923 structure has deteriorated to the point of becoming a safety hazard. 

When the city released the original replacement design to the public in December 2006, many South Street residents and business owners objected to it.  They argued it catered almost exclusively to the needs of cars and did not include sufficient safety provisions for pedestrians and bicyclists.  They also felt that the city and PennDOT did not allow for sufficient community involvement in the design process. 

Pundits and advocacy groups such as the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition joined in the fray.  In a February 9, 2007, Inquirer columnist Inga Saffron lambasted the H2L2/Gannett Fleming design as “little more than a chute for efficiently moving traffic onto the most frightening of the I-76 entry ramps.”

Previous coverage

With the clock ticking and concrete chunks dropping into the Schuylkill River, Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler has vigorously pushed to build the replacement as soon as possible.

A few months ago, the South Street Bridge Coalition, PennDOT, and the Streets Department agreed on some significant revisions to the bid documents.  These included:

• Turning Radii at -75.1688 Expressway Ramps – Turning radii were reduced from earlier designs to 33/36/36/42-ft. corners, which are the minimum that can be accomplished under Federal Highway Administration requirements.

• Bicycle Safe Roadway Grates – Bicycle safe grates that have adequate inlet capacity will be used.

• Translucent Barriers –  “Quilite” panels will be installed at the railroad crossings to increase natural lighting. The pre-assembled barriers that block noise (from the trains) look like glass-block walls.  Its a safer, better looking alternative to chain link fence, which is what is found at the Arch Street RR crossing.

Despite these changes, the South Street Bridge Coalition continued to push for additional revisions, so that, in the words of Coalition President Jim Campbell, the city would end up with a “cleaner, greener, more pedestrian and bike friendly bridge,” one that “would not be a repeat of the Walnut Street Bridge.”

Last week, the Coalition announced that even more progress has been made at the negotiating table. In an email released on September 17, Campbell and 30th Democratic Ward Leader Marcia Wilkof confirmed that PennDOT and the Streets Department had agreed upon additional, significant design concessions, which have been listed verbatim:

• Vehicle Lane Design – A four-lane traffic design will replace the five-lane design.

• Crosswalk at Schuylkill River Park – An additional crosswalk with a pedestrian activated traffic signal will be added at the ramp and stair from the Bridge down to the Schuylkill River Park.   The traffic signal will be portal mounted above the roadway. The curb ramps at this crosswalk will be widened to 6-ft. on both sides of the Bridge to allow multiple bicyclists to simultaneously cross and access the bicycle lanes.

• Speed Limit – The posted speed limit for the entire Bridge and viaduct will be reduced to 25 MPH.

• Bicycle Lanes – Bicycle lanes have been widened as a result of the reduction in the number of vehicle lanes.

• Advanced Bicycle Stop Bars – Bicycle stop bars will be advanced to allow bicyclists to get ahead of motorists for greater visibility and safety.

• Lighting – Pedestrian style lights will be installed. The majority of the bridge lighting will be sidewalk mounted at the curb. All light standards will include mounting brackets for future banner placement.

• Signal Timings –Traffic signal timings have been optimized for pedestrian movements and safety.

• Reflective Pavement Markers – Reflective pavement markers will be installed at the curve on the east side to improve roadway visibility.

• Sidewalk Surface – The sidewalks will be scored and tinted to resemble grey slate pavers.

• Roadway Surface – The roadway will be tinted to resemble asphalt.

• Guiderail – Decorative vertical elements will be added to the sidewalk side so that the railing appearance is more pedestrian friendly.

These changes were based on recommendations made by the South Street Bridge Coalition in their community based-design, funded by a grant facilitated by State Senator Vince Fumo.

When asked about what he thought about these concessions, Campbell was extremely enthusiastic. “The Streets Department and PennDOT were really very supportive and very good to work with,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the Streets Deptartment and PennDOT who got it.  We also got support from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, as well as wonderful political support from Councilman Frank Rizzo, Mayor Michael Nutter, and Senator Vince Fumo. These changes are a result of everybody listening to what people ultimately really wanted.” 

After reviewing the list of the agreed-upon changes, H2L2 Principal in charge of design Tom Piotrowski pointed out that he had “no official marching orders to do a four lane plan,” and was unaware such a revision had been made last week.

“We will gladly change the design to suit current needs,” he continued. ” I don’t have any objections to what was approved from an architectural standpoint. Whatever was done in the original plan was responding to requirments from 10 years ago.”

James Templeton, another H2L2 architect, added, “We are in dialogue with Gannett Fleming about implementing these changes and how to go about doing them.”

Is this the end of the negotiation process?   Campbell still feels that additional revisions will be needed before the South Street Bridge Coalition signs off on the design. “We are still working actively with the Streets Department and PennDOT,” he said.

John Boyle, advocacy director at the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, was also pleased with the changes made thus far. “We’ve got about 80 percent of what we wanted,” he said.  “The main thing was the inclusion of the bike lanes.  But also we got the turning radii at the intersection at the Schuylkill Expressway ramp. In the original design, two of those four corners were squared off, which was the minimum which Federal Highway Administration would allow.  We are also happy we got the crosswalk on the east side of the bridge that connects with the walkway.  Overall, this is going to be a significant improvement compared over the Walnut Street Bridge.  It’s built to be much more in the context of the neighborhood.”

Sarah Clark Stuart of the Schuylkill River Park Alliance, which did much of the organizational legwork for the South Street Bridge Coalition, stated that “all these changes are very good.  They are going to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access to and from the Schuylkill trail to the bridge, and we think it is great the community had an opportunity to weigh in and make the bridge much more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. I think it’s an example of a civic process that worked well for the neighborhood and the community of users of both the bridge and the trail. I hope it’s a sign of other improvements that the city makes further down the line during this administration.”

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