Schuylkill River Trail ‘boardwalk’ opens [video]

The new extension to the Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia opens today.

After two years of construction, the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk allows pedestrians, joggers, and bicyclists to meander out over the middle of the river.

Although called a boardwalk, it is not actually made of boards. The 2,000-foot concrete bridge is scored to roughly resemble planks. The walkway is between 6 and 15 feet above the surface of the water, depending on the tide, and 50 feet from the east side bulkhead.

Railroad tracks do not leave enough room for a trail on the east riverbank, so the Schuylkill River Development Corporation built the bridge suspended over the water to connect the existing Schuylkill River Trail, at Locust Street, to the South Street Bridge

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“We didn’t see any advantage of being close to the shore. The closer you get to the shore, the closer you are to the railroad,” said SRDC director and CEO Joseph Syrnick, walking his boardwalk the day before it opened to the public. “We all love trains, but we don’t want to be close to them all the time. By being out here, and having water on both sides of you, it’s a better experience.”

Syrnick expects most of the 19,000 weekly users of the Schuylkill River Trail to take advantage of that “wow” factor, stretching their stroll, or workout, in order to be over the water for an extra 1/2 mile. Traffic may even increase because of the seamless connection to the South Street Bridge, recently renovated with generous pedestrian and bicycle shoulders. It boasts one of the best views of the city skyline.

“It connects us to neighborhoods south of South Street, and to the University of Pennsylvania hospital complex. Those are important constituents for us,” said Syrnick. “A lot of those people use the trail, but have to use local streets to get to Locust Street. Now they can get on at South Street.”

The SRDC aims to create a continuous trail along the Lower Schuylkill – seven miles from the Delaware River up to Philadelphia. Making trails along a riverbank is relatively easy. This boardwalk is the first bold – and expensive – solution to an immovable obstacle: the railroad. The $18 million bridge, paid for with federal, state, municiple, and private funds, turns an awkward moment along the river into something graceful and inviting.

“I can’t explain it, but there is a connection to the water you feel on that kind of a boardwalk that you don’t feel on the trail,” said Alex Doty, director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “In the same way that people stop 1/2-way along the South Street Bridge to look at the water and the skyline, you can expect the same thing along the boardwalk. While the views of the city may not be as spectacular, the connection to the water is all that much closer because it’s right there.”

The SRDC faces bigger challenges to make the next 6.5 miles of trail running south to the Delaware. The master plan has the trail connecting to the Gray’s Ferry Crescent, hopping over the river via an old railroad swing bridge, then continuing onto Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia.

That will not be cheap.

“I’m hoping this will be so popular, it will create a groundswell with funders,” said Syrnick, seated on one of the boardwalk’s benches. “We did so well before, let’s do it again!”

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