Delays slow rebuilding of Delco bridge

A bog turtle also slowed Gradyville Road Bridge repair work.
A bog turtle also slowed Gradyville Road Bridge repair work. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Posted: February 23, 2014

Eileen Nelson can remember when rebuilding the Gradyville Road Bridge was expected to take a year. Back then, in March 2013, it seemed like more than enough time to replace a two-lane, 14-foot stretch of road in the heart of Delaware County.

But that was before Nelson, an engineer, and other officials in Newtown Township learned that a neighboring town needed a sewer main in the same area.

And it was before the state Department of Transportation asked for a new permit.

And it was long before a tiny but endangered bog turtle was spotted near the future construction site.

Now, almost two years after the dilapidated bridge was closed, the township's 12,000 residents are still making long detours to get to schools, churches, and town buildings located near the road.

To some, the endless project seems like an example of what happens with too much government.

"You could have thrown a board over that hole and driven over it," said William Ferguson, a resident of nearby Bishop Hollow Road who said his road has more traffic due to the detour.

"With all the different reasons, all the excuses," Ferguson said, "it's just very frustrating at this point."

No one predicted the project would be beset by so many complications, Nelson said. The delays alone will soon surpass the time it took to rebuild Philadelphia's South Street bridge, and as of this week, there was no start date in sight.

"It's surreal," Nelson said. "I've really never seen anything quite like this."

Making timely repairs to such roads has long been a challenge in Pennsylvania, which leads the nation in the number of unsound bridges. According to the state Department of Transportation, about 16 percent of state-owned bridges are structurally deficient. About 35 percent of the approximately 6,400 bridges that are on locally owned roads but receive state money, such as the Gradyville Road Bridge, fall into that category.

Concerns about crumbling infrastructure led to a new state transportation law last November that is expected to generate $242 million for repairs to bridges and roads.

But when it comes to Newtown's bridge replacement, 80 percent of which will be paid for by PennDot, money isn't the problem.

Though township officials started discussing repairs as far back as 2004, the tale began in earnest in spring 2012 when Nelson came on board as township engineer. After learning the bridge needed replacement, she conducted a safety review.

"We actually saw movement when a truck went over it," she said.

The bridge, which spans a small reservoir along a well-traveled road, was closed in May 2012.

Nelson said she prioritized the project, but the first snag came later that year when officials in the neighboring town of Edgmont asked to incorporate an underground sewer force main into the project - which would also serve Newtown. Rather than risk back-to-back construction projects at the site, Newtown supervisors agreed, and Nelson submitted a proposal to PennDot.

Last fall, at what Nelson then believed was the eleventh hour, PennDot officials informed her that the addition of the sewer meant the project needed a new permit. It was back to the drawing board.

Then came perhaps the most maddening development: An environmental surveyor spotted a bog turtle 900 feet upstream from the bridge. Pennsylvania's smallest turtles, the creatures grow to no more than four inches and are considered an endangered species.

A follow-up survey found no sign of the elusive turtles, but determined there were areas near the bridge that are conducive to nests.

Due to that possibility, the township must next seek approval from the Delaware County Conservation District and the Army Corps of Engineers before proceeding.

Pre-turtle, officials had said the bridge would be done by August. Now Nelson won't even hazard a guess.

"Every week I get people asking me," she said.

For some residents, there is one silver lining.

Richard and Georgette Hedberg live in Springton Pointe Estates, one of several housing developments on the west side of the bridge. Their house is closest to the bridge on that side and sits on the very edge of a forest, and they said the delay in rebuilding had brought silence to their neighborhood.

On a recent morning, there were no sounds for miles from their snow-filled yard, and the air was so still that bird calls and even footsteps seemed to echo.

"It's been lovely," Richard Hedberg said. "Before, we heard cars. Now you hear nature more, things you didn't before."

610-313-8113 @AESteele

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