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The Sellers Avenue Bridge in Ridley Park would certainly not make the list of the Wonders of the World, but it has been a reliable passageway for pedestrians and vehicles for well over a century.
However, all of that wear and tear led to PennDOT closing the bridge indefinitely back in July due to safety concerns. While officials have been working on a plan to fix Sellers Bridge, frustration has grown over the lack of urgency to repair it.
“I’m asking Amtrak and PennDOT to be able to work together in a room and figure out what the next steps are of this project, so that they’re actually planning for roadblocks down the road so that we don’t have any further delays,” Ridley Park Council President Dane Collins said.
Built in 1904, the bridge on Sellers Avenue is about 70 feet long and 50 feet wide. Nearly 50 years later in 1952, the bridge was updated. It passes over an Amtrak line. The bridge is owned by the state, but its base is on federal property.
A recent inspection found that the steel bridge is structurally deficient and in poor condition. The beams holding up the bridge are deteriorating.
When PennDOT made the decision to close it to all traffic in July, plans were already in place to get it back up to code. State officials told the borough that they plan to solicit bids for bridge work in early January 2023 and announce the winning contractor later that month. Demolition of the bridge would start in early spring. However, recent discussions have left officials in the Borough of Ridley Park upset.
Amtrak and PennDOT, as well as federal, state, and local officials met Monday to talk about the future of the bridge.
“It was at that point that everyone realized that there really wasn’t a very good chance that this bridge was going to be able to be demoed in early spring,” Collins said.
The reason is that the steel wires that help Amtrka’s trains run are connected to the lower part of the bridge. A demolition crew needs to remove the wires and then place them above the bridge on large steel poles, known as catenary lines.
These polls would be permanent structures that are going to be in place with the construction of the new bridge. The problem is that due to supply chain issues, the poles are on a six- to eight-month backorder.
“Then the question became, well, why can’t we order these catenary poles right now? The plans apparently had been finalized,” Collins said. “We know what the dimensions of the polls would be. Why can’t we order them?”
Amtrak took the position during the meeting that they were not responsible for ordering the poles. PennDOT took the position that they would order the poles — but not until they award the contract to a bidder at the end of January.
“You do the math, we are lucky if this thing starts a year from now,” Collins said.
A PennDOT spokesperson said in a written statement that the project has always been a “top priority” and that planning for a replacement began several years ago. However, that process faced a series of “complex coordination challenges.”
“We are now working on two legal agreements with Amtrak, one for right-of-way and one for construction coordination, that will require resolution in order to advance construction,” the statement read.
PennDOT also added that they cannot order poles or begin construction until the bid process begins and a contractor is selected.
In a written statement to WHYY News, an Amtrak spokesperson said that the railroad service is working to expedite the project.
According to Collins, the first known discussion of the Sellers Avenue Bridge project between the borough and PennDOT goes back to 2006 — when the state notified the borough of issues with the bridge. At that time, Collins was just a senior in high school.
In 2019, the state inspected the bridge more frequently. The bridge’s safety score plummeted. This year, PennDOT erected a four-way stop sign on each side of the bridge.
“In my opinion, this caused further deterioration. So, we went from basically cars being able to freely go over the bridge to a four-way stop sign, which caused upwards of six, seven cars at a time to be stopped on that bridge during rush hour. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Collins said.
Because of the recent bridge closure, borough officials are now worried about the safety of their residents. Ridley Park’s fire company previously used the bridge to get quick access to Taylor Hospital and the rest of the borough. That is no longer the case.
“Now because of that, they’re forced to go around and depending upon the time of day, now with traffic being diverted to the bridge, it could severely impact the response time,” Collins said.
He has also heard reports of pedestrians hopping the train tracks rather than walking to the next available bridge a few blocks away.
The plans for repairing the bridge supposedly include the creation of a pedestrian bridge, but it is tied to the same contract as the Sellers Avenue Bridge, meaning PennDOT won’t immediately act on building one until the project starts.
The Sellers Avenue Bridge also leads into the heart of Ridley Park’s business district.
“There’s a couple of businesses in there, specifically that I know for a fact that business is down over 25% … because so much of their business were people coming in in the mornings and grabbing a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a doughnut, or a pastry prior to hopping on the train into the city,” Collins said.
Patrick “PJ” Dolan, the owner of Dolan’s Bar, said that the closure of the bridge has made traffic heading into the business district worse.
“The traffic on Swarthmore Avenue, which is the only bridge that’s currently open, was horrible before and it’s even worse now,” Dolan said.
From noon until 8 p.m. daily, traffic comes to a slow crawl on one of the main bridges connecting both sides of Ridley Park.
“Our 7-Eleven, which is basically our anchor store, which is owned by a wonderful family who has been there for generations is down major — double digit — revenue. It’s bad. It’s affecting everybody,” Dolan said.
Dolan’s Bar has been in Ridley Park for 68 years. The Irish-American dive bar has seen a slight dip in afternoon customers in recent months, but Dolan owns the building and doesn’t have to pay any rent. Dolan said that the new businesses calling the borough home following the pandemic don’t have the same luxury. He’s worried for them.
“I’m not as worried about my business as much. But as I am the other stores were a lot more established. There’s a lot of new businesses in the town that I’m extremely worried about,” Dolan said.
He believes there should be more urgency from PennDOT and Amtrak to act.
Collins said the borough has emails that show that the state set aside money for the project as far back as 2012 and that it would start in 2014, but for some reason, they did not act on it until now.
It’s no secret that Pennsylvania’s bridges and roads are aging poorly. This is in large part due to a funding scheme which has some money from the state’s fuel tax meant for bridge and road repair going to fund State Police.
A 2019 report from then-Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that transfers from the Motor License Fund to State Police totaled more than $4.25 billion over a span of six years. Attempts to change the system have failed to gain traction in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
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