New bicycle-pedestrian ramp coming to Ben Franklin bridge in Camden

Nearly 10,000 petition signatures later, plans for a new pedestrian and bicycle ramp on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden have been salvaged.

The Delaware River Port Authority board of commissioners approved a design contract Wednesday for a new ADA accessible pedestrian and bicycle ramp on the Camden side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. 

The new ramp will replace the current steep, narrow, three flights of stairs that are encased in chain link fence and barbed wire and that lead from the south side of the bridge down to Pearl Street just north of Third Street, at the rear of the Rutgers University Camden campus. 

“I see the bridge as a happening place,” said Justin Miller who commutes over the bridge from Cherry Hill. “…It’s almost like a community, but it’s a closed world.”

He said the steep stairs deter people who aren’t regular users but that a ramp will make the bridge more accessible to the general public. 

Approval for the $598,000 design contract has been years in the making

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia started pushing for improvements as far back as 2004, said John Boyle the coalition’s research director and a member of DRPA’s citizens advisory committee. For years the project sat in the DRPA’s five-year capital programs budget. In December 2011, around the time when the Bicycle Coalition hoped to see design work begin, the ramp project was removed from the capital budget program. 

“We were hoping they were going to move forward but at the last minute the board of directors pushed it back,” Boyle said.

The project was initially removed because of funding restraints and in order to make room for other high priority items, DRPA Chief Engineer Michael Venuto said. 

In response, the Bicycle Coalition urged DRPA and elected officials to restore funding for the project, encouraged organizations to write letters and circulated a petition, which received 9,523 signatures. 

“We’ve had a good relationship with the Bike Coalition over the years,” Venuto said while explaining that the DRPA agreed to return the ramp project to the five-year capital program budget given the compelling reasons and public support that the coalition presented.

Despite this back and forth, Boyle said he is happy with where the project stands.

“I don’t think the minor delays that have been [occurring] on the Camden County side are really a bad thing,” Boyle said.

At the DRPA board of commissioners meeting Boyle thanked the group for its support.

“It’s been a long, hard process, but I feel like we’re in a good place,” he said. “I’m really impressed by the engineering staff’s ability to move this complicated RFP forward.”

The design contract, which is estimated to take approximately nine months, was awarded to Ammann and Whitney, a firm that specializes in bridge construction and whose past projects include work for the Washington Metro in D.C. and the University of Pennsylvania’s pedestrian “Weave Bridge.”

The contract includes the creation of multiple potential designs and both stakeholder and community outreach, which Venuto said could begin in the first quarter of 2013. 

Boyle said to be successful the bridge work will have to be well connected to the Camden community and well designed, possibly with a full ramp as well as a shortcut stairway option like Philadelphia’s Chestnut and Market street bridges have. 

“I think it’s important given the historic nature [to consider] the architecture & aesthetic,” Venuto said. 

Miller would like to see a future ramp that cyclists do not have to dismount on.

“For me [the stairs are] not a problem because I’m an experienced cycler, but they are a huge barrier for the average person who just wants to get out on their bike,” he said. 

Miller also said he hopes the project will include signage from the ramp to bike trails connecting to Cherry Hill and Cooper River Park, which has several miles of recreational trails. 

The pedestrian ramp is an important link in the regional trail network that Camden County and Philadelphia are working to establish and feeds into the area supported by a $6 million TIGER Grant that Camden County received in 2010 for bicycle trails on Pine Street, Pearl Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. 

“Both projects are really dependent on each other,” Boyle said. 

He said he hopes the project will help lessen the feeling that Philadelphia and Camden are so disconnected, when in reality the two cities are neighbors in the same, linked region.

“It’s an opportunity to connect the neighborhoods of Camden and the neighborhoods of Philadelphia,” he said. “…The success that we’ve seen on the Philadelphia waterfront needs to be brought to the other side.”

Construction work might begin in the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015, Venuto said. In the meantime, DRPA is working to secure grant funding for the estimated $4-6 million total project costs. 

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