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 …
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
“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?”