Guest editorial

A skewed statement

By LAURIE RAMIE
Posted 1/18/22

The Upper Delaware Council finds PennDOT’s Purpose and Need Statement prepared for the Skinners Falls-Milanville Bridge study to be skewed against rehabilitation of the existing 1902 bridge …

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Guest editorial

A skewed statement

Posted

The Upper Delaware Council finds PennDOT’s Purpose and Need Statement prepared for the Skinners Falls-Milanville Bridge study to be skewed against rehabilitation of the existing 1902 bridge through faulty assumptions and glaring omissions.

Yet this document’s contents and tone will play a critical role in decision-making over the fate of this bridge that has been indefinitely closed since October 16, 2019.

1) Our first complaint begins with this one-sentence declaration: “The purpose of this project is to provide a safe and efficient crossing of the Delaware River at Skinners Falls for cars, trucks, emergency response vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians.”

It is highly presumptuous to include emergency response vehicles as a definitive Purpose component. It notes that certain fire trucks weigh 15-31 tons. Considering that the single-lane bridge was constructed with a 9-ton weight limit, declaring that category of vehicle as required sets an unachievable standard of inadequacy to restore the bridge to its original capacity.

When this project’s public survey asked the question, “Beyond your personal usage, what types of vehicles/users need to have access to the bridge to meet local needs?”, the three types LEAST selected among eight choices were: 6. Recreational Vehicles/Boat Trailers; 7. Large Trucks/Fire Trucks/Tractor Trailers; and 8. Buses.

Not every possible use of this bridge is appropriate or necessary for this location served by weight-posted roads. Upper Delaware River Valley emergency responders have made reasonable accommodations over the bridge’s 118-year existence to use two-lane concrete alternatives at short distances away in Narrowsburg and Cochecton rather than this 13-foot-wide, timber plank deck crossing.

2) Contrary to the assertion that all public feedback was incorporated, it does not indicate that the highest number of recurring themes expressed were, in order: “restore/rehabilitate the bridge”; “bridge is a historic resource”; “river crossing required at this location”; and “quality of life; aesthetics of the area”. The traffic calming effect from the absence of large trucks, and the bridge’s value for recreation and tourism, were also strongly supported. Instead, each of the draft Needs is elaborated on with cherry-picked information to support them.

3) The document merely acknowledges that “The Skinners Falls Bridge has cultural significance to the local community and larger historic preservation community.” It references the bridge’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, its location within the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, and that the National Park Service (NPS) cites this bridge as a contributing Cultural element to this unit’s Outstandingly Remarkable Values.

Given the rarity of Baltimore truss bridges, its qualification for state and national recognition, the visitors it attracts, uniqueness of its ornamentation, and its perfect fit into the rural setting, we feel that historical and cultural significance easily rises to the level of a Need for protection.

4) The document indicates, “Regular usage of the bridge by overweight vehicles demonstrates a need to provide a crossing that is suitable for vehicles over ten tons.”

It is patently absurd to conclude that this illegal activity warrants a redesign of the bridge. Instead of conceding to bad behavior, address the core problem. That statement again appears to influence against historic restoration, contradicting PennDOT’s own 2014 feasibility study which recommended rehabilitation to 10-tons.

5) While we absolutely agree that the Skinners Falls-Milanville Bridge is important to the local economy, we disagree that commerce would suffer any negative impacts by keeping the bridge “as is” since no major industry currently relies on crossing it. To the contrary, the picturesque historic bridge is an added amenity for the tourism-reliant businesses in the immediate vicinity.

6) The NPS is the primary responder for river rescues and its vehicles fit within the 9-10 ton weight postings. Ambulances average 5-7 tons. In discussing the Narrowsburg Fire Department’s occasional mutual aid calls, the document states, “The restricted bridge crossing at Skinners Falls forces NFD to utilize River Road, which has narrow lanes, tight curves, and poor sight distance, as their primary response route to Pennsylvania for full-weight trucks....”

The 10-ton posted River Road would present the same travel challenges even if there was a 40-ton bridge there. While the speed of a response is obviously important, so too is the safety of the individuals in the vehicles. If this crossing was considered that critical for emergency response, it would have been targeted for emergency reopening or replacement.

7) The document states that “The Skinners Falls Bridge, in its current condition, does not provide access across the river for recreational vehicles and trailers...” Survey results debunk the idea that this is considered to be an issue that needs fixing.

It states, “Additionally, the bridge, when open to traffic, did not provide adequate bike and pedestrian accommodations”, without defining the term adequate. There is easy sight distance for the 467-foot length of the bridge and clearance to move out of the way of the one vehicle able to cross at any given time. We regard this as another potentially prejudicial non-issue.

The Purpose and Need Statement must objectively reflect the true will of public input and information gathered from the study. Mitigation such as erecting a plaque would pale in comparison to the opportunity to save this treasured historic gem that we believe adequately fulfills the transportation needs of the people and places that it serves.

[Laurie Ramie serves as the Upper Delaware Council Executive Director.]

PennDOT is accepting public comments through Feb. 7. Visit https://bit.ly/SkinnersFalls

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