‘From the Wayne County side’

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 4/14/21

MILANVILLE, PA — Wayne County has more bridges than the year has days. Only a handful of them, however, reach across the Delaware River and connect residents to their …

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‘From the Wayne County side’

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MILANVILLE, PA — Wayne County has more bridges than the year has days. Only a handful of them, however, reach across the Delaware River and connect residents to their neighbors in New York State. These aging interstate bridges are frequently closed or reduced to single lanes for repairs. But what happens when one of the oldest, most vital in the region is deemed too far gone for any standard remedy?

More than 500 days have passed since the Skinners Falls Bridge has been open to traffic. Since its closing, private residents, citizen coalitions and numerous local government officials from both sides of the river have voiced their opinions about what should happen next. The stakeholders in the Wayne County Courthouse feel the same way about the issue as they did when the bridge was first closed in 2019: The area needs a bridge there, and it needs to be brought up to today’s standards.

The Skinners Falls Bridge—also known as the Milanville or Black Horse Bridge—was built in 1901 and reconstructed in 1980. It was closed on October 17, 2019 after an inspection found deteriorating truss bracing and missing or cracked timber deck running boards. With the bridge clearly beyond short-term repair, PennDOT laid out five paths forward: two different rehabilitation options, two different replacement options and last, and least appealing to most, removal.

An “initial rehab” project would cost just over $5 million and reopen the structure to its previous four-ton weight limit; while a full rehab would cost just over $14 million and reopen it to a 10-ton weight limit. Neither of those options may be eligible for federal funding, according to PennDOT.

As for replacement, the structure could be replaced with a “new bulb tee” bridge which can handle legal loads (40 tons) and cost $8.7 million. For a more aesthetically pleasing, historical-looking option, it could also be replaced with a new arch or other “signature bridge” for an estimated $13.4 million.

PennDOT did not provide an estimate for how much removing the bridge would cost. However, it would require legislative approval from both Albany and Harrisburg. It’s not a viable option from Wayne County Chairman Brian Smith’s perspective. With NEPA and the Catskills currently connected by a series of veritable relics, Smith said he’d like to see something new in place.

“There [are no] new bridges in the northern Delaware [area] that I can remember them building. The Narrowsburg bridge has been rehabbed, but it’s still an old bridge and it’s still old piers; the Damascus bridge has been rehabbed and they’re going to rehab it again, but it’s still old piers, it’s still an old bridge; same thing with Callicoon,” he said. “At some point in time, I think they need to have a new bridge put in that’s a concrete structure... we can take concrete structures and make them very much aesthetically pleasing.”

Just down the hall from the commissioners’ office in the planning department, planning director and member of the bridge’s project advisory committee Craig Rickard said the choice between rehab and replacement seems clear.

“They’ve been rehabbing that bridge over a decade, and the weight limits keep coming down... they keep putting more money in but the limit keeps going down, down, down,” he said. “To do a full rehab would be $14 million and to replace would be $5 million less; it’s not my decision but...” He let the silence speak for him.

He listened to the recent, highly attended public meeting on the matter, however, and got the feeling that many residents may not share the county’s perspective.

“I got the sense from the people that live up in that area, they have no interest in a 40-ton bridge,” he said. “They are not interested in tractor trailers, they are not interested in fire trucks, they are not interested in school buses: Some of the people up there just want to leave it as it is.”

But the commissioners see it as a safety and an economic issue. And with the river attracting scores of tourists, boaters and swimmers each summer, Rickard said that emergency responders need to be able to perform water rescues quickly: “It’s not every minute counts, it’s every second counts.”

“We need a way to cross that river in the event that we have some terrible weather events or something else catastrophic happens,” Smith said. Commissioner Joe Adams added, “Tourism is one of our biggest industries and potential agrotourism in the future, as well as delivering agricultural products from one side of the river to the other... there are not that many accesses [to New York] from the Wayne County side.”

According to data from the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016, the estimated time for NPS emergency responders to reach NY Route 97 during an emergency was three minutes, compared to six minutes using the Damascus bridge and 14 minutes using the Narrowsburg bridge. Plus, Rickard said that the Damascus bridge is slated to be a one-lane bridge this summer.

The Skinners Falls bridge is currently under the review of a planning and environmental linkages (PEL) study. Residents can submit public comment through the following link, www.bit.ly/3umwibb, until Friday, April 30. They can also call the project hotline 610/234-5148 or email skinnersfallsbridge@aecom.com.

“The community is going to need to come together and make a decision from a four-ton bridge up to a 40-ton bridge,” Rickard said. “Will the area remain frozen in time?”

Read about the Upper Delaware Council's endorsement of rehabilitating the bridge here.

Read editorial comment about the Skinners Falls Bridge here.

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Steven Ircha

Additional Historical Information:

The current deed for the land surrounding the historic Milanville Bridge states very clearly the wishes of the Milton Skinner family.

The Skinners owned the home and land surrounding the bridge they built. When the Skinner family sold the bridge, they presciently inserted into the deed a clause that states that the existing bridge should stand as is and if necessary, repairs to the existing bridge could be made. There is a right of reversion in the deed that states that if the existing bridge is no longer used, the property surrounding the bridge reverts back to the owners of the property. The Skinners did this to retain the beauty of the area. They knew that in the future, a bigger unattractive bridge would simply make the area less beautiful and they knew that the increase in traffic would cause accidents with bicyclists, pedestrians, and those gaining access for swimming and boating. Any proposal to replace the bridge would therefore not be possible unless agreed to by the current owners of the property which is Steven & Jane Ircha. The Ircha family has made it clear that they will not agree to a new bridge as they want the current historical bridge rehabilitated. The Itcha family has made it clear that the safety of residents, pedestrians, bicyclists, swimmers and boaters must be protected by having only a simple one lane bridge. Anything more would cause deaths and injury caused by more traffic and larger vehicles accessing the bridge if it were changed or enlarged. Any arguments that a bigger bridge is need for emergency vehicles is simply not valid as in all the last 30 years or so that the Ircha family has owned this property, they have rarely seen an emergency vehicle on this bridge. However, larger vehicles and more traffic will certainly cause more accidents and deaths to those using roads leading to the bridge

Wednesday, April 21
Steven Ircha

What is Milanville In For

Let me begin by stating that rehabilitating the current Milanville Bridge ( known to many as the Skinners Falls Bridge ) is a significantly better idea than replacing the bridge for many reasons.

On a practical level, one must do a simple search on Google for Bridge Project Cost Overruns to find out that replacing the Milanville Bridge instead of rehabilitating it will be a much more expensive undertaking than we may be led to believe.

In many instances of new bridge construction around the country, contractors constructing new bridges site 1) huge cost overruns and 2) other unforeseen engineering issues that delay completion of the overdue project and add millions more to the cost. One may find that the cost estimates of new unsightly bridges may actually cost significantly more than an aesthetically pleasing rehabilitation of the existing bridge.

One reads of all too many stories whereby those in the trenches state that their projects turned out to be the “worst managed” and “most bureaucratic bungled” projects they have encountered.

Once construction begins, communities are held hostage to complete these projects that have already started. After sometimes years of delays with the associated bridge closing during this time, communities are stuck trying to get these issues resolved. Where is the extra money going to come from? Many feel that the resources would have been better off placed in new ambulances, firetrucks and health care facilities in the area. The millions should have been left locally. Instead, the contractors and engineers made all the money.

Often times huge delays occur because contractors stop work until they can get paid for the “additional work” that they have encountered. They can claim that the engineers did not adequately take into account soft soil in the river, delays caused by law suits filed by environmental groups, bad weather, interference by recreational users of property near the construction, etc. Contractors then can walk away from the project until the “issues get resolved” Yes, the issues mean more money. Where will that come from. Project delays can take years to resolve.

We’ve all read of projects that have experienced these myriad of problems, including a shortfall of anticipated funds, that then go through new comprehensive reviews to determine ways to rescue the bridge project from sinking. Who suffers? We do. Delays can take years and millions more have to be found. Sometimes the monies are not found. What then?

This all underscores the foolishness of initiating a project without fully understanding what it’s going to really cost and how to pay for it when things inevitably go wrong. We’ve all read of contractors claiming that a bridge construction could drag on for years because of fundamentally flawed” design problems and unreasonable demands for construction methods.

Often times additional funds must be found to improve the roads leading up to the bridge. This leads to more delays and significant disruption to the local community. These additional improvements generally were not included in the cost estimates of the bridge. Afterall, these are not “bridge expenses”, these are “local road expenses” they say.

We’ve also read of arguments between contractors and engineers disputing who is to blame for disputed design problems and cost overruns. Do we want to be involved in all this?

Headlines like those below could be in our future if we allow a new bridge to be constructed instead of simply rehabilitating what we have now. “Despite cost overruns and years of delays, engineering firm states that they have full confidence in our design of the bridge,” . “Despite cost overruns and years of delay, multiple independent reviewers have confirmed the suitability, structural integrity and constructability of the design. “Despite cost overruns and years of delay, minor design clarifications are typical on complex projects”. “Contractors claim that an unusually high number of change orders have occurred during construction of this project causing cost overruns and years of delays”. “Latest grievance involves a change in procedure for removing bridge forms, similar to scaffolding, that is potentially is dangerous for construction workers and could extend the project by as much as six months or more and cost another few million dollars.“ What was supposed to be a 2.5-year project is now in its fifth year,” .

In conclusion, I believe it is best to rehabilitate the beautiful historic bridge that we have. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

Thursday, April 22