Bridge a headache for Conshohocken

Snarled traffic may compromise the community's renaissance.

Posted: August 06, 2007

From his window in the office tower overlooking Conshohocken, investment banker R.J. Kelly has a stellar view of what for commuters is the town's most famed feature - the bridge across the Schuylkill linking the borough with I-76 and the Blue Route.

During any given rush hour, the fastest way to traverse the span is to walk. Driving can take 15 minutes to travel the 1,848 feet. By foot it's five minutes.

"It's really messy. That thing's backed up from light to light," said Kelly, who commutes in every day from Bristol, Bucks County, and across the bridge that links Conshohocken with West Conshohocken.

Even though the bridge and interchange are one reason Kelly and thousands of others now work and live in the Conshohockens, the bumper-to-bumper traffic threatens the town's growth and chokes the tightly packed intersection where the bridge meets Route 23, the Schuylkill and the Blue Route.

Some 38,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day.

"It's a nightmare. A complete nightmare," said Andy Matejik, a limo driver who uses the bridge days and nights. Matejik said it takes up to 15 minutes to drive westbound on the bridge at peak hours.

The time by foot was determined by a reporter in soft-soled shoes equipped with the digital clock on his cell phone.

The congestion has already spurred the exodus of one firm, Aon Consulting Inc., which after more than 20 years in the borough left its 65,000-square-foot office in 2006 and moved to Radnor.

Traffic was a factor, said Pat Peters, office administrator for the firm. Aon's 200 employees loved working in Conshohocken, but with more residential condominiums under construction, and no traffic improvements in sight, the problem "would get much worse before it got better," she said.

Planners and developers predicted the problem when they first envisioned a revitalized borough in the 1980s. The once-industrial, working-class town had suffered through a string of plant closings.

"You can't delay development for traffic concerns," said Leo Bagley of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, who has worked on the traffic issue. "It was more important to develop Conshohocken," Bagley said.

Fixing the problem will not be easy or cheap.

A 2002 study by Pennoni Associates Inc., a Philadelphia consulting firm, said improvements would require widening the bridge from four lanes to six, redesigning and reconstructing the I-76 interchange, widening Matsonford Road that feeds the bridge, and improving traffic signals.

Cost? Say $20 million.

"We're stymied by a lack of funding from PennDot," Bagley said.

Other plans by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to spend $4.5 billion for other traffic improvements around the region mean a major Conshohocken project may be decades away, Bagley said.

The problem may worsen, temporarily at least, when the DeKalb Street bridge linking Norristown to Bridgeport closes for reconstruction in the fall, said Rob Henry of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. With one less crossing, the Fayette bridge will face added volume from drivers diverted from Norristown.

"We have lots of places like this around the county," said Bagley, whose commission has identified up to 25 sites in need of urgent upgrades.

PennDot prioritizes projects based on pavement condition, safety factors and structural deficiencies, among other factors, a spokesperson said. Because the borough poses only traffic problems, the project will not be high on the PennDot to-do list.

Vince Totaro, a councilman and restaurant owner in Conshohocken, wants local property owners involved and has proposed charging developments to raise the $4 million needed for advance engineering.

He thinks without that commitment, PennDot won't move. But Totaro has to persuade his fellow government officials in the two Conshohockens.

"They are not understanding the scope of the issue," Totaro says. "There seems to be members of Conshohocken who don't think it's Conshohocken's problem."

Local developer Don Pulver, owner of the boroughs' eight multistory offices on both sides of the river, said that although traffic may be problematic in the future, it's now only bothersome at peak times, which, in Pulver's estimation, do not last long. "During the peak, it's not so good. Otherwise, it's not so bad," he said.

J. Brian O'Neill, owner of the 60-acre Millennium apartment complex in Conshohocken who funded an interim project to restripe the bridge, declined to comment for this article.

Another new building will open its 41,000 feet of office space to tenants in August. The building is already fully leased.

Local restaurants such as Blackfish on Fayette Street suffer because the traffic causes customers to "think twice," about driving, Blackfish general manager Ashley Hess said. "There are plenty of other restaurants in the area."

The two boroughs bought some time with interim traffic projects. PennDot, with O'Neill's financial support, restriped the bridge in 2005 to make room for a new turning lane. A second project, which would reroute westbound commuters coming off the bridge, has stalled due to a lack of funding.

Totaro has relished the borough's commercial renaissance, but fears his town will slip without traffic improvements.

"Currently, Conshohocken is a healthy business environment," Totaro said. "But you can't wait until it's unhealthy to treat it. It'll be too late."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Rogoff at 610-313-8134 or at jrogoff@phillynews.com.

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