Ben Franklin Bridge pedestrian ramp may be built after all

Mike McGettigan with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia carries his bicycle down the stairs on the Camden side of Ben Franklin Bridge. The BCGP would like to see a ramp built on the Camden side of the to ease the commute across the Delaware River. At the moment bicyclist have to walk down a set of stairs.
Mike McGettigan with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia carries his bicycle down the stairs on the Camden side of Ben Franklin Bridge. The BCGP would like to see a ramp built on the Camden side of the to ease the commute across the Delaware River. At the moment bicyclist have to walk down a set of stairs. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 12, 2012

A proposed bicycle and pedestrian ramp for the Ben Franklin Bridge, cut from the budget last month, may be restored to the Delaware River Port Authority's 2012 spending plans.

A DRPA board committee agreed Wednesday to reconsider the project while seeking federal funds to help pay for it.

The $3.2 million ramp on the Camden side of the bridge would replace a steep staircase with 39 steps. The Philadelphia side has a gently ascending sidewalk that leads to the bridge's walkway.

After the DRPA cut the ramp from its five-year capital budget, advocates for bicyclists, pedestrians, and the handicapped called for the agency to reconsider.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, a member of the DRPA board, proposed that unspent DRPA economic development money be used to build the ramp. The DRPA board last month returned $10 million in development funds to the agency.

The proposal was supported Wednesday by letters from New Jersey U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and 15 area agencies and companies, including the Campbell Soup Co., Cooper University Hospital, and AARP.

Jeff Nash, the Camden County freeholder who is the DRPA's vice-chairman and chairman of its finance committee, asked for a delay until Feb. 1 to pursue federal funding.

Nash said as much as $3 million could be available from "congestion mitigation and air quality" funds controlled by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

That money typically is divided among applicants from the nine-county Philadelphia region for transportation projects.

John Boyle, research director for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, said it was "optimistic" to expect that even $500,000 could be collected by DRPA in the competition for the federal funds, and he said it could take more than a year for federal money to be made available.

"I hope this isn't becoming a political football . . . but it wouldn't be the first time we've seen projects used as political footballs at the DRPA," Boyle said.

Wagner's representative at Wednesday's finance committee meeting, Rob Teplitz, also warned against a lengthy postponement.

"We're committed to see this project through," Teplitz said. "I wouldn't want to delay for an indefinite period of time."

Lautenberg and Menendez, in urging the ramp's construction, said it would provide an important link to a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths being built in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania with $23 million in federal stimulus funds.

The ramp, they wrote, "would help take cars off our roads, reduce congestion and pollution, and support economic development efforts along the Camden waterfront."

The finance committee took no action on another Wagner proposal, to restore funds to reopen the long-closed Franklin Square subway station at Sixth and Race Streets.

Teplitz said Wagner wanted to postpone action on the PATCO station after speaking with Gov. Corbett, who chairs the DRPA board, about other possible uses for the unspent economic-development money.

The Franklin Square station, built in 1936 and last used in 1979, lies beneath newly refurbished Franklin Square. A fountain, carousel, and miniature golf course have brought new life to the formerly seedy park, one of William Penn's original five squares.

The board in 2009 authorized its reopening, but funding for the station also was cut from the 2012 budget because it wasn't considered necessary for the "safety and security" of the bridges or PATCO.

Also Wednesday, the finance committee approved an extension of a $900,000 loan guarantee to help keep afloat the financially troubled Battleship New Jersey.

The DRPA in 2003 guaranteed a $1 million bank loan to the battleship, a tourist attraction on the Camden waterfront. Last year, the Home Port Alliance, which operates the ship, paid off $100,000 of the loan.

The battleship operator doesn't have the money to retire the loan, DRPA chief financial officer John Hanson said, but will try to pay $100,000 a year.

"We don't know if they'll be able to make the payment," Hanson said. But if the DRPA does not extend the guarantee, TD Bank will call the loan and require the DRPA to pay the full $900,000, he said.

The full DRPA board is to vote next week on the extension of the loan guarantee.

"Our hope is that the recipients will not default, and then we won't have to pay anything," Nash said Wednesday.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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