Bridge backers send a message

posted Sat, May 21, 2011

By Wm. Shawn Weigel, Staff Writer

Daily Local

KENNETT — When Chester County officials unexpectedly shut down the Chandler Mill Road Bridge last week, Gwen Lacy didn't panic.

On the contrary, the director of the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County — the agency that has worked to preserve dozens of acres of land throughout the region — saw the closure as a chance to give the bridge just what it needs.

"It's not exactly a surprise; we've known since 2006 that it needs work," she said. "We're certainly not disputing that it needs to be updated."

Lacy said the closure means the bridge could be rehabbed instead of being completely replaced — something area preservationists have struggled to prevent.

"It definitely needs, and has needed, some maintenance for a while," she said. "What we don't want to see is a 'demolition by neglect.'"

On Friday, May 6, Lacy said engineers acting under county advisement closed the 100-year-old bridge after a county-ordered inspection report included a recommendation that Bridge No. 236 be "closed with immediate effect."

Turn-of-the-century architect Nathan Rambo designed the steel plate-and-girder bridge — along with 82 other bridges throughout the county — with hand-laid stone wing walls.

Lacy said a rehab that included new girders, plates, decking and carrier beams would cost about $300,000 to $500,000. But an entire new bridge runs in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.

The crux of the situation, Lacy said, is that nearly $5 million in private, state, county and township funding has already been invested in the area — much of it built around the bridge's appeal. Many of the conservancy's nature walks and historic programs include trips or references to the bridge, which was recently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

"To then go ahead and take out the keystone, which is the bridge, makes no sense," she said. "That's a central part of the rural quality of the community hub." 

According to Rebecca Brain, communications coordinator for the Chester County Commissioner's Office, the bridge design report is under Pennsylvania Department of Transportation review and that the county can't discuss any future plans until the report has been approved by PennDOT and the county's engineer.

"We really cannot pinpoint a time frame for the approval of the report to be complete, but it is more likely to be some months rather than a few weeks," Brain said.

She said the report being reviewed was submitted by the bridge engineer prior to the county receiving notification that the bridge should be closed.

"The inspection of the bridge was undertaken by a different engineering firm, and the recommendation to close the bridge immediately was sent to both the county and PennDOT," she said.

"This whole conflict could be laid to rest rather than a quick fix," said Dee Durham, executive director of SAVE 41. "The opportunity could be missed to avoid another five years of problems."

Durham said that of all the various reasons to preserve the bridge, its character is near the top of the list.

"Some people might look at the bridge and say, 'Well, why would they want to preserve that?' But it has been here for 100 years, and it does speak to the history of the community in both appearance and configuration."

Durham said the one-lane bridge causes people to slow down and wave one another on, and it gives them an opportunity to take in the lush scenery while they wait.

"If they build the bridge the county is proposing, it's a big, ugly, concrete monstrosity that doesn't fit there like this bridge does. It's not the same," she said.

She said that while county officials may not see the historic value in bridges such as the one on Chandler Mill Road, opinions change over time — often too late.

"Then when they say, 'What happened to that beautiful bridge?' it's gone forever," she said.

Although there is no official word, Lacy said she's heard the bridge could be closed for as long as two years, which cold rankle some residents who take Chandler Mill into neighboring Delaware.

Regardless of the time, Lacy said she hopes to see the project unfold sooner than later.

"We're trying to look at the big picture and the long-term effects. The county's engineer is charged with moving traffic as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that means they want to move it through these back road bridges, too. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Let's get all the stakeholders involved, and let's do this right."

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