Board votes to take ownership of historic bridge
● By J. Chambless
By Richard L. Gaw
After nearly two years of negotiations, meetings and fervent opinions, it came down to two choices, and at 8:35 last Wednesday evening, one choice was made.
By a vote of two to one, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors voted at its Nov. 5 work session to enter the township into negotiations with Chester County to obtain the title and ownership of the Chandler Mill Bridge, for the purpose of refurbishing it. The bridge, which was built in 1910 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was closed to traffic on May 6, 2011, due to extensive structural damage.
The bridge is currently owned by Chester County, which has said it plans to rebuild the bridge as a modern, two-lane, two-way structure – a project that will be estimated to take between eight and ten years to complete. With the decision, the township has agreed to not only assume ownership of the bridge, but foot the bill for the entirety of its rehabilitation – estimated to be completed during a two- to three-year time period – as well as account for all liability costs that accompany its ownership.
Supervisor Richard Leff made the motion to have the township pursue the ownership of the bridge.
"Over this past year, as several options have been evaluated by our engineers and presented to the public and evaluated in executive sessions, I hope you agree that we have not come to this meeting in haste," Leff said. "If Kennett Township does not take ownership of the Chandler Mill Bridge, then Chester County is planning a two-lane, two-way bridge. The direct cost to the township would take about eight to ten years to build, virtually all of that with federal and state money. This option would not address the current inability of merging vehicles to cross the bridge for at least eight more years. This costly option, which increases our nation's debt, to open a bridge to more traffic to a lightly-used road, is not an option I 'd like to pursue."
Leff focused on two options. The first option, which he called "The Way It Was," would re-open the bridge to one lane of vehicular trafic, cost the township $1.25 million and take two to three years to complete. It would also be able to carry emergency vehicles, "something not recommended for over 30 years, due to weight restrictions [on the bridge]," he said.
The other option Leff mentioned would be to preserve the bridge for the next 25 years, keep it open only for pedestrian and bicycles, and repair it to the point that it will be able to hold emergency vehicles. The cost would be $750,000.
"This would permit us to enjoy a pedestrian and bicycle path, as well as measure how much emergency vehicle usage occurs, before deciding what to do in the future," Leff said.
Board Chairman Scudder Stevens also voted in favor of the township taking over ownership of the bridge.
"I recognize a number of things," Stevens said. "I recognize that the bridge has been closed for at least four years, that traffic has been disrupted for that period, that emergency services have been disrupted, that the area has begun to accommodate to changed circumstances and conditions, and that the surrounding roads and neighborhoods have been disrupted and disturbed by that fact.
"I recognize that the bridge continues to deteriorate, that the bridge is a nationally historic structure, that citizens are generally unaccepting of a two-lane bridge as a replacement, that citizens are generally unaccepting of temporary traffic interruption in the area, and that it is estimated that it will be eight to ten years before this road and bridge will be re-opened for use, if we wait for the county, state and federal consortium to complete the repairs," Stevens added. "I recognize that it will cost $1.25 million to the township to complete the repairs, should we take ownership, and that it would take up to two years to make repairs to the bridge."
Supervisor Robert Hammaker, who throughout discussions about the bridge has been a vocal advocate to allow the county to construct a two-lane, two way structure, voted against the motion.
"The good news is that it will probably done a lot sooner and retain its historic designation," he said. "The bad news is Kennett Township will pay for it from now on. Finally, I wonder what tomorrow's news will be."
Stevens, Leff and Hammaker are not the only dissenting voices in determining the future of the bridge.
The tendrils which led to the Nov. 5 decision have been long and weighted with opinion, both privately and publicly. The township has held special meetings with residents, the last of which went four hours. Both the supervisors and residents have been flooded with an avalanche of petitions and letters that have leaned in all directions as to what the best course of the bridge's future should be.
Township resident Chris Burkett asked at the Nov. 5 meeting why the township needs to take sole ownership of the bridge, which comes with the responsibility of absorbing liability and maintenance costs.
"Perpetuity is a mighty long time and there can be a lot of costs associated for this acquisition that will be experienced not only by the people sitting in this room this evening, but future
generations of Kennett Township folks who move here," Burkett said. "It's unfortunate that something couldn't be hammered out with the county."
"There have been various discussions about the proposal that was made tonight," Stevens replied. "Those have not been worked out. We have not reached a resolution on any of those issues. As a consequence, the only thing we're doing tonight is deciding on whether we are going to take ownership of the bridge, and what happens after that is going to be determined."
With the understanding that the township will eventually become the rightful owner of the bridge, the next major decision concerning the bridge's future will be to determine the course and purpose of its rehabilitation. By all accounts, two choices remain: to rebuild it as a one-lane vehicle structure, or to convert the bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle structure.
On March 30 at the Red Clay Room in Kennett Square, Remington, Vernick & Beach, the township's engineering firm, provided five concepts for the potential rehabilitation of the bridge – that both meet current bridge standards, retain the historic integrity of the bridge and ensure the safety of the public.
The one-lane vehicle structure option, the firm said, would convert Chandler Mill Road to a one-lane road and replace the bridge with a single-span, multi-girder, simply supported steel superstructure bridge, with concrete wing walls and abutments. In addition, bike/pedestrian lanes would be constructed on both sides of the road and the bridge to accommodate the increasing number of bike riders and walkers, who have, since the bridge's closing, used the bridge for that purpose. The cost of the option would be $1.6 million.
To reopen the bridge as a pedestrian- and bicycle-only structure, the firm said, would cost the township $570,000.
In recent public meetings, those most critical of the township taking over the ownership of the Chandler Mill Bridge have said that socking the township's residents with the bill in repairing the structure is unfair. The criticism may all be for nothing, as the township has already begun to pursue ways of paying for bridge repairs. Township Manager Lisa Moore disclosed during the meeting that the township has applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources which, if received, will allow the township to be reimbursed 80 percent of the costs involved in repairing the bridge, once it is built. In addition, The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County [TLC] has provided the township with one dozen grant sources to help defray rebuilding costs.
Should the township elect to reconstruct Chandler Mill Bridge as a pedestrian- and bicycle-only structure, the vicinity of the bridge stands to be sweetened through the generosity of a local landowner, who will donate 45 acres of private conservation lands adjacent to the historic Bucktoe Cemetery, that will create the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve. The gift will also include perimeter trail easements along Chandler Mill and Bucktoe roads, and links to the Red Clay Greenway. The township will also receive a $100,000 endowment for the continued maintenance of the pedestrian bridge.
Should the township elect to reconstruct the bridge as a pedestrian- and bicycle-only structure, the TLC will purchase Walnut Hill, a historic inn at the base of the bridge, and convert the home into its headquarters as well as an interpretive nature center for the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.