The public is talking, but who's listening?

Questions raised about the Skinners Falls Bridge Purpose and Need document

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 1/6/22

MILANVILLE, PA — The most recent round of public comments on the Milanville-Skinners Falls Bridge has been extended to Monday, February 7. 

The bridge has been closed since October 2019 …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

The public is talking, but who's listening?

Questions raised about the Skinners Falls Bridge Purpose and Need document

Posted

MILANVILLE, PA — The most recent round of public comments on the Milanville-Skinners Falls Bridge has been extended to Monday, February 7. 

The bridge has been closed since October 2019 owing to its structural deterioration; the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has been working since then on studies and surveys that will guide plans for the bridge going forward. 

The core uncertainty about the bridge's fate—whether it will be rehabilitated or replaced—has led to significant public interest in the project. A public comment period open earlier in the year received 286 responses from an online survey and 192 from emails, as well as an untold number submitted through the mail and via phone. 

The current round of public comments is meant to gather opinions on a draft Purpose and Need document, which lays out the purposes and the needs a repair or a replacement would need to fulfill. The round was originally set to run from Wednesday, December 8, 2021 to Saturday, January 8; the announcement that it would be extended was made without fanfare two days before it was set to close. 

The Purpose and Need document was written, in theory, with earlier rounds of comment taken into consideration. Since its release in December, regional activists have questioned whether it considered those earlier rounds of comment seriously. 

The Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS) is a Damascus based organization advocating for clean air, land and water in the Delaware River Watershed and beyond. It responded to the Purpose and Need document in a letter sent Saturday, December 18, 2021, the latest of a number of letters critiquing PennDOT's public responsiveness on the Skinners Falls Bridge project. 

According to the letter, the draft Purpose and Need document fails to incorporate the most significant concerns highlighted by earlier rounds of public comment—historic preservation, quality of life and the need to calm traffic—and elevates other concerns that few commenters put as priorities—especially large truck and emergency vehicle usage of the bridge. 

The result of an earlier study, available on PennDOT's Skinners Falls Bridge webpage, indicate that a majority of respondents prioritize the use of personal cars on the bridge and its preservation as a historic resource, and that a minority prioritize access by firetrucks, tractor trailers and other large trucks. 

The DCS letter claimed those priorities were flipped in the Purpose and Need document, without any clear explanation as to why. "The lack of any explanation for PennDOT's rejection of the public's most salient concerns… gives the public the impression that their answers do not matter and PennDOT is going through the motions in this process to get to a desired outcome of bridge replacement, contrary to overwhelming public sentiment. 

According to DCS Director Barbara Arrindell, PennDOT hasn't responded to experts who say that the bridge could be completely restored, nor acknowledged its cultural value or the economics of tourism in the area. Nor has PennDOT responded to the DCS letter of Saturday, December 18. 

Only through consistent comments from the DCS and other members of the public did PennDOT extend the document's public comment period, says Arrindell: people have spoken out, and they will have to continue to speak out. 

The Upper Delaware Council (UDC), a partnership of local, state and federal governments and agencies managing the Upper Delaware River, weighed in with their own concerns in a letter approved at its Thursday, January 6 meeting. 

"It is highly presumptuous to include "emergency response vehicles" as a definitive Purpose component," wrote the UDC, claiming that prioritizing the bridge's use by emergency vehicles sets an unachievable standard for the bridge's restoration. The bridge an originally constructed with a nine-ton capacity; figures in the draft Purpose and Need document put the weight of emergency response vehicles between 15 and 31 tons. 

The UDC letter further states that the Purpose and Need document cherry-picks information from the survey to support its desired purposes, and that document is skewed against the rehabilitation of the bridge through "faulty assumptions and glaring omissions."

"The draft Purpose and Need Statement must objectively reflect the true will of public input and information gathered from the study," concluded the letter.

Click here for a link to the Purpose and Need document, the survey responses and the public comment links.

Click here for more coverage of the Skinners Falls Bridge.

Click here for the letters written by Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.

Comments

No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here