By Richard L. Gaw
For those of you who are planning to attend the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors Work Session on June 4, one that will continue discussion on future options for the historic Chandler Mill Bridge, please know that the opinions of Scudder Stevens, Robert Hammaker and Rich Leff are about as wide apart as the creek that runs beneath the bridge itself.
After two special meetings with residents, the last of which went four hours; after an avalanche of petitions and letters; after years of plans, blueprints and studies; after meetings with PennDOT officials; and after the township's engineering firm presented several building scenarios; the three supervisors are still locked in a stalemate.
The bridge, built in 1910 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was closed to traffic on May 6, 2011 due to extensive structural damage. Now functionally obsolete, it is currently owned by Chester County, which has said it plans to rebuild the bridge as a two-lane, two-way structure. The county has also maintained that should Kennett Township want to “own” the bridge, that the township would be responsible for the entirety of its design, construction and maintenance.
At an April 30 meeting at the Red Clay Room in Kennett Square, the engineering firm of Remington, Vernick & Beach, the township's engineering firm, provided five different concepts for the future of the bridge -- applicable only if the township chooses to take ownership of the bridge.
The first option would be to completely reconstruct the bridge as a one-lane vehicle structure, converting Chandler Mill Road to a one-lane road and replacing the bridge with a single-span, multi-girder, simply supported steel superstructure bridge, with concrete wing walls and abutments. The cost of the option would be $1.6 million.
The second option would be to fully replace the bridge as a 28-foot-wide, two-lane, two-way structure, one that would accommodate vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians as well, through the construction of bike lanes. The estimated cost of this option would be $1.81 million.
A third option would be to reopen the bridge as a pedestrian- and bicycle-only structure, which would cost the township $570,000.
A fourth option would reconstruct the bridge as a Y-shaped, combination two-lane, two-vehicle and pedestrian/bike bridge that would involve re-aligning Chandler Mill Road slightly east to accommodate vehicle traffic over a newly-constructed bridge, while at the same time redeveloping the current bridge to serve as a pedestrian/bike-only structure. The estimated construction cost for this option would be $2.51 million.
Finally, a fifth option would provide rehabilitation for the bridge, with no accommodation for pedestrian and bike traffic. The cost of this option would be $750,000.
Hammaker has opposed the idea of the township taking ownership of the bridge from the start, and favors the county's plans, which are currently in draft stage and may take five years to complete.
"The county is on track to build a bridge at no cost to the township," he said at the April 30 meeting. "In my opinion, the historic designation is spurious. I don't think the Kennett Township taxpayers want to take over the bridge and take to building it, maintaining it, and replacing it due to age or disaster, and assume the liability for it, forever."
Although Leff has yet to submit to a public stance on the future of the bridge, he said that a major component of his campaign for supervisor dealt with the preservation of the bridge as an historic structure.
"If the township does nothing, the county will build a new bridge, and most of the cost would be borne by federal highway trust funds and by gasoline taxes, and yes, it won't
cost the township taxpayer anything, but it will cost federal taxpayers money. It's costing everyone else in America a few cents.
"The other option is for the township to take it over, try to rehabilitate it and make it a one lane bridge, Leff said, "but the way the bridge was constructed, they don't build bridges like that anymore. If it changes to a pedestrian-only bridge, it would not cost the township much money. The lowest cost open is to make it a pedestrian bridge."
Stevens, the board chairman, favors the option of dismantling the existing bridge and restoring it to its original design -- a one-lane bridge with a road-bearing capacity of 15 to 20 tons.
"Our engineers said that this can be done," Stevens said. "It would continue the usage of the road as it was before. It would allow emergency vehicles and smaller fire trucks, school buses to cross it, and allow for two-way traffic on a one-lane bridge – of which there are several in the township."
Stevens said that his idea is justified because a one-lane bridge can continue "to be a thruway for the larger community without disrupting the people who live in the immediate area. The key issue that drives Stevens' opinion, however, is safety.
"I was told about a fire that occurred in Pocopson recently, in which a house caught on fire and before it was done, there were at least four and as many as six fire companies to deal with this fire because of its significance and the need to carry water. If there is a fire or emergency [near the Chandler Mill Bridge], there's no saying what the needs are going to be. If a Cub Scout is playing with his knife in the woods [and an accident occurs], how do you get somebody there? A minute here or there is very crucial if its your hand or your son's hand on the line. As a supervisor, I can't downplay that. If someone dies in the area, whose fault is that?"
The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County (TLC), long a proponent of converting the Chandler Mill Bridge to a pedestrian-only structure, presented a proposal to the supervisors on May 19 that spells out a potential fourth option. Under the stipulation that the township take ownership of the bridge and pay to convert it to a pedestrian-only structure, the TLC would take over the ownership of the bridge
as part of a new historic district known as the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve. As part of the proposal, a local landowner has promised to donate 50 acres of nearby land to the formation of the proposed entity that will have connectivity to an additional 200 acres of trails and open space. The proposal also states that the TLC would purchase the former Walnut Hill Bed & Breakfast and its 2.5 acres and convert the home and property into an interpretive nature center. The TLC would also assume responsibility for liability insurance and upkeep of the structure.
"It's historic. It's ecological. It's trails. It's recreation," said TLC executive director Gwen Lacy about the possible formation of the Preserve. "This whole area and our proposal is a microcosm of our work. We don't mix traffic with nature preserves. It just doesn't work. Now that we have the opportunity to create this, we can see the vision of this landowner."
The landowner, who asked not to be named, said his offer stemmed from the enthusiasm he has seen in the area that residents have for using the now closed bridge as a place for walking, jogging and bicycling.
"I came up with this idea when I thought the pedestrian-only bridge was a real possibility," he said. "I like the way the road is being used as a park, with dog walkers and joggers and children on bikes. I thought that maybe I would contribute something to this, too. I would open up my trails that area parallel to the creek and join in the effort to create this Preserve."
Leff views TLC's proposal as a "very positive offer. I view it as a bridge is closed. We have lemons, and now we can turn lemons into lemonade," he said. "We've had a 100-year-old bridge with structural issues, and now we have the opportunity to take a negative and turn it into a positive."
Lacy said that as the township's supervisors continue to stand apart on the future of the bridge, the lost time can only hurt any chance of a pedestrian-only bridge being built.
"The county is waiting for this bridge, they are already investing money into it with design reports, and Scudder is handing it to them," Lacy said. "He is handing them [the supervisors'] dissension, and all the county needs to see is that we have three different votes, and boom, they will build a two-lane bridge."
Stevens said that he is not optimistic that a final decision will be reached on June 4.
"This is a really hot issue, and there are people very close to me who are really upset with the position I have taken," he said. "I see that as unfortunate, but unfortunately, that's the way of politics.
"At some point when it comes to governance, and there are serious and emotionally charged issues, people can see things differently," he added. "What it requires is that people sit down and talk about the alternatives and find areas where compromise can be found. In my view, there is no room for compromise on peoples' safety. I see no room for compromise on that. I can see compromise on other areas, and whether others can find compromise remains to be seen."