Northwest Philadelphia civic wants community concerns heard before bridge renovation

With the pending closure of one of its main avenues of egress, a Northwest Philadelphia civic group is taking the initiative to ensure that the interests of nearby communities are considered in forthcoming design plans.

The Blue Bell Hill Civic Association is laying the groundwork for future conversations with city leaders, neighboring civics and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation about the multi-million dollar renovation of the Walnut Lane Bridge.

As reported by NewsWorks in April, a $7 million overhaul of the historic structure is planned. The project will, among other things, remove and replace the bridge’s half-mile roadway, improve lighting and signage, and repair drainage systems and eroded slopes beneath the bridge.

The bridge is scheduled to be closed in the process, requiring approximately 16,000 cars a day to take a 3.5-mile via Wissahickon, Midvale and Henry avenues.

Potential traffic and business impact

John Dixon, a resident of Blue Bell Hill, which sits at the eastern foot of the bridge along the Wissahickon woods, is heading up the community-focused effort for the civic. He’s been in contact with PennDOT project managers and relayed an updated timeline for bridge project during a Tuesday night meeting.

As reported by Dixon, the final design of the project will occur during the spring and summer months of 2013, with a final design scheduled to be in place by July of that year. Work on the bridge will commence afterward, with the bridge’s closure slated to begin in spring 2014 and last through the winter months.

Of utmost to concern to Dixon and others present at the meeting, was the bridge’s closure.

Dixon said he was particularly concerned about the potentially negative impacts on traffic and nearby businesses, noting that renovations to the Germantown Avenue Bridge, which connects Chestnut Hill to Montgomery County, contributed to such problems.

While the commercial footprint in Blue Bell Hill is limited, many in the largely residential neighborhood travel to Roxborough and Manayunk for shopping and services.

Also of concern was the rerouting of SEPTA bus lines that use the bridge.

“The number to watch is 65,” said Ron Goldwyn, president of the BBHCA, in reference to a major bus route that uses the bridge. He forecasted that SEPTA will be a major player in discussions about the project.

Dixon said that he was in contact with SEPTA service personnel, and asked them to delay their planning for service interruption and rerouting.

” I don’t want [SEPTA] to automatically assume that PennDOT is going to shut this bridge down,” he suggested, but acknowledged that if the bridge were single-lane, it would double both construction cost as well as the project’s timeline.

‘ A little pain for long-term improvement’

Dixon’s estimates weren’t far off.

Charles Metzger, spokesperson for PennDOT, said the bridge was originally designed to accommodate trolley tracks. The feature was never implemented, but there is currently an 11 inch void beneath the proposed track bed that is filled with sand. Metzger explained that a sidewall would need to be built to reinforce this void to accommodate a single-lane project.

As a result, Metzger said that changing the project to a partial closure could compromise the integrity of the bridge, adding costs beyond the initial $7-10 million price tag.

The move could also stretch the project from nine months to two years. In addition, managing traffic entering a single-lane bridge on Walnut Lane would add additional complications.

“We don’t feel that it’s feasible or practical,” said Metzger of a partial-closure proposal, indicating that PennDOT will go ahead with the 9-month closure plan. “It’s a little pain for long-term improvement.”

A need for a broader community-based dialogue

In order to lobby for their interests, Dixon suggested the civic draft a position paper as a means of having a formal starting point for conversations with PennDOT.

Goldwyn suggested the civic form a working group at will develop these ideas and relay them to nearby civic organizations and to City Councilpersons.

Shoshanna Bricklin, a representative of Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.’s office, was present at the BBHCA meeting on Tuesday. She proposed a multi-civic association meeting that would coordinate community efforts throughout the affected areas.

In addition, BBHCA members suggested reaching out to both Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia for support.

 “We won’t get everything we want,” said Goldwyn, “but we’ll be at the table, and have a lot of allies.”

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