Q: PennDOT plans to replace a narrow, one-lane bridge over the Delaware Canal in Riegelsville with a modern bridge with two 11-foot-wide lanes. My neighbors and I own a historic twin home on the building line of the new bridge. We recently learned that PennDOT intends to use our neighbors' yard as a staging site during construction and to take a quarter of their yard permanently. We also discovered that the footings of the new bridge would go directly into our neighbors' septic tank, rendering their portion of our 1839 home uninhabitable, and greatly diminishing the value of my home. PennDOT wants to widen this tiny canal bridge to highway standards despite the fact that the road from the bridge leads only to the historic Riegelsville Bridge with its 8-foot lanes and 3-ton weight limit. This would be a giant waste of taxpayer money. The new bridge should simply remain within the footprint of the existing bridge.
— Elizabeth Balogh, Riegelsville
A: Your neighbor Joshua Richardson more than agrees with you, Elizabeth. He's convinced that PennDOT drove in the wrong direction regarding the $2 million replacement of the canal bridge right off the starting line. Officials weren't aware that his septic tank is just off east end of the bridge until about a month ago, well after the replacement bridge had been designed.
PennDOT spokesman Charles Metzger said officials knew of the septic tank's existence, but not its precise location.
Nonsense, according to Richardson: When a group of officials visited his property about three weeks ago, "They didn't even know there was a septic system; they had no idea," he said. "They didn't know we weren't connected to public sewer."
The design of the new bridge on Delaware Road can be altered to avoid damaging the septic tank, according to Metzger and a consulting project engineer. But Richardson contends PennDOT has no legal right to proceed with the project. Though PennDOT paid the previous homeowner $2,000 in 2009 for a temporary construction easement for access to the property during construction, Richardson said he had no way of knowing that when he bought the property in 2010. The agreement was not disclosed by the previous owner, and Richardson's title search gave no indication of it, or of any information about future bridge work, he said. Had he known, "I wouldn't have bought the house," he said.
Metzger said the previous owner should have disclosed the agreement before the property was sold.
Among those and other contentious details surrounding the project, perhaps the only point of universal agreement is that the 90-year-old structurally deficient canal bridge must be repaired or replaced. Metzger said the state has planned its replacement since 2007.
Actually, it's been since at least 2005, when PennDOT considered a wholly different scheme: Replacing the bridge with a new two-lane span about 350 feet to the south, creating a straight shot between nearby Maplewood Road and the Riegelsville Bridge spanning the Delaware River. (The river bridge was built in 1904 by the John A. Roebling's Sons Co. of New York, known for its iconic Brooklyn Bridge.)
The Maplewood plan generated opposing traffic from Borough Council and many residents who feared a higher-capacity bridge linked directly to Maplewood Road would prompt faster-moving traffic and fewer stops by motorists in the historic borough. Currently, the tight curves on Delaware Road between the river and canal bridges, and the vehicle stops dictated by the single-lane canal bridge, slows traffic effectively. Owners of the Riegelsville Inn at the time opposed the 2005 plan partly because the road linking the river bridge to Maplewood would have run through the business' parking lot. For whatever reasons, PennDOT dropped the Maplewood bridge proposal at the roadside.
Metzger said the existing canal bridge is a two-lane span, and that it's possible for two mid-size cars to pass one another on the bridge. That's tailpipe exhaust. The bridge is prominently posted with placards reading "one lane bridge" on both sides. Westbound motorists are instructed by a companion sign to "yield to oncoming traffic." The bridge is 14 feet wide between the side walls, and raised-concrete ledges (like curbs) extend a few inches into the lane on each side. Real-world, each of the "two" lanes is less than 7 feet wide. The "one lane bridge" postings are spot-on.
PennDOT officials contend they've been bending over in reverse gear to avoid or mitigate any negative impacts construction of the new bridge might steer in its neighbors' direction. "We could have put in a 45-foot-wide bridge down there, but respecting the historical nature of the area … [and] the historic district of Riegelsville," the state held the width to 24 feet and opted for ornamental touches to help maintain the aesthetic character of the area, Metzger said. That's appropriate, given the quaint, private enclave made up of a handful of homes and the historic inn, which dates to 1838, nestled along a short stretch of Delaware Road between the canal and river.
"We try to be very sensitive" to historic-preservation themes, consulting project manager Narayana Velaga agreed.
Metzger and Velaga said PennDOT can build the new bridge at the site of the crumbling span without harming the Richardsons' septic tank. "We can shorten up the abutment … [and] re-use an existing wall that comes off the bridge and goes around the curve" toward the river bridge, among other possible changes, Metzger said.
He said PennDOT has hired a septic specialist to precisely locate the tank, but that Richardson has stifled this process by denying the state all access to the property. Though Richardson is aware that certain public rights-of-way are attached to roads, bridges, power lines and the like, he insists the bridge right-of-way would not provide sufficient access to replace the bridge; otherwise PennDOT would not have approached the previous owner about buying more access. Richardson does not think the easement can be applied to him.
Metzger acknowledged that the easement was not filed until May 2011, a year after the Richardsons moved in. Did the seller have a legal responsibility to disclose it, or PennDOT to file it sooner?
Richardson said that according to his title insurance company and several lawyers, "neither PennDOT nor [its contractors] have any rights whatsoever with respect to my property, by reason of an untimely filed document to which I was not a party … "
Metzger insists the state has every right of access to the property and to start construction immediately, but officials haven't done so, mostly in deference to Richardson's and your concerns, Elizabeth. If true, that speaks well of their altruistic approach. If not, perhaps they did file the easement too late and are trying to map a detour route. They threw the 2005 bridge plan into reverse; could they be forced to grind some gears before proceeding with this one?
We'll have to glance in the rear-view mirror once in a while to see how this traffic jam gets resolved.
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