Q: I'm wondering if you can find out some information regarding the closing of the metal truss bridge on Seidersville Road and the nearby High Street Bridge in Bethlehem. They've both been closed since earlier this year and it doesn't look like any work is being done on them. Are there plans to open them any time in the near future?
— Marybeth Saporita, Lower Saucon Township, October 2011
Q: Can you get any updated information regarding the bridges on Seidersville Road over Saucon Creek and the W. High Street Bridge just west of Hellertown? They have been closed for over a year. Maybe we should stop paying our county, borough and gas taxes!
— Robert Hero, Hellertown, August 2012
Q: I live on Ravena Street near Saucon Park and the Hellertown border. On Seidersville Road/High Street on both sides of Ravena are two bridges that have been out of service for the past two years, leaving residents with only one exit out of Ravena Street. Ravena has been known to flood during heavy rainfalls, and though that did not happen during Hurricane Sandy, I just feel it is a little unsafe to have only one exit available. What is the status of the repairs, and who is responsible?
— Matt Senneca, Bethlehem, November 2012
A: There is good news and bad news to steer your way regarding these two long-closed bridges on a narrow and rural (yet quite important) stretch of Seidersville Road and W. High Street in Bethlehem. (Physically it's the same street; I'm not sure where the names change.)
Unfortunately, it's mostly bad news, because of the timing. The Seidersville Road and High Street bridges, only about 750 feet apart, have been closed since February 2011 and June 2011, respectively — and they're expected to stay that way at least two more years.
The bridges are owned by Northampton County and Bethlehem, respectively, and officials are well aware of the inconvenience — and I would agree, Matt, there's a significant safety impediment — posed by the closure of these weakened structures, particularly the city's High Street span.
With the bridges out, Ravena Street via Silvex Road provides its residents sole access to Route 412 and the outside world — including, for example, hospitals. Likewise, there's only one way in for emergency personnel. Many newer town homes have joined the traditional single houses that dotted Ravena when I covered Bethlehem city government in the 1980s. Quite a few people live there today, including lots of kids. Backup emergency access would be a great asset.
"We're just as anxious" as residents to get the High Street Bridge replaced, Bethlehem Public Works Director Mike Alkhal said. "We really, honestly are taking it very seriously and actively seeking a replacement."
I can attest that city officials have been pushing PennDOT and its regional advisory committee, the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study, for state funding for the project since at least 2010, trying to tap two grant programs in addition to regular bridge funding, to no avail. As most fellow warriors are aware, that's not because PennDOT or local officials don't recognize the need. It's because there's not nearly enough state or federal bridge-repair money to go around, and it's been that way for years.
Norfolk Southern Railroad Co., which owned the narrow, wood-plank bridge, initially proposed to demolish it and simply fill in the gap beneath so that High Street could be extended on solid ground; no bridge would be necessary. Bethlehem officials opposed that concept because of long-held plans to convert the path of the abandoned rail line beneath to a hiking and biking trail. The earthen fill would block the trail.
So instead, the city agreed to demolish and replace the bridge, relieving the company of the responsibility and the cost, as well as the cost of maintaining the new bridge. In return, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay the city more than $300,000, which is being used to design the new span, Alkhal said.
The city's good-faith effort in fronting its own money for the project should give it a better shot at being awarded state funding, Alkhal said. Though it's only in the preliminary design stage, Public Works Chief Engineer Matt Dorner placed a rough cost estimate for a new two-lane span at about $1 million.
However, even if state funding is secured and a perfectly smooth road lies ahead with regard to all the other details, Alkhal said construction would not begin before 2014. It's unlikely that traffic will be flowing over the new bridge before 2015, and it could be later than that.
It's an even bumpier ride for the larger Seidersville Road Bridge (technically Northampton County Bridge 19), a steel-beam structure spanning Saucon Creek west of the city bridge, mostly because of the chronic lack of state funding, but also because the creek and wetlands beneath require even more environmental and other reviews and sign-offs, county Bridge Superintendent Tom Kohler said.
The 76-year-old bridge has appeared on the list of those in line for state funding, only to be removed because of chronic shortfalls from Harrisburg, Kohler said. It's an estimated $7 million to $8 million project that clearly must await state funding, he said. Access to 412 and Interstate 78 will be restored when the High Street Bridge is back in service, but the inconvenience will remain, as Seidersville serves as the area's quick link to Stabler Arena and the rest of Lehigh University's sprawling Goodman Campus.
Obviously these aren't the only two Valley bridges that have been closed or restricted for lengthy periods, to the dismay of many motorists, Pennsylvania being home to more structurally deficient bridges than any other state. In fact, the collection of stalled or delayed bridge projects is likely to grow until Harrisburg maps a course to significant new revenue for this vital purpose.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to email@example.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.