Thursday, July 13, 2006

Like Water under a Troubled Bridge

PennDOT sponsored a public meeting to go over the plans for the renovations of Route 28 between the Heinz plant and the 40th Street Bridge. Specifically the realignment to the highway and railroad tracks at the 31st Street Bridge.

The plan presented at a meeting earlier this year, called Alternative 7, would turn the intersection at the 31st Street Bridge into an interchange, allowing traffic to keep flowing without having to stop at a light. The space required for the added ramps would push the railroad tracks over. In addition, Norfolk-Southern wants extra space should they want to add a third track in the future. This would push the maintenance road still closer to the river. Now, the maintenance road is currently the only connection between the North Shore Trail and the Millvale Trail. It's trespassing for cyclists to use it but Norfolk-Southern hasn't been paying attention and there have been plans to build an official trail connection. Except that the realignment would push that into the river.At the meeting, located at the DCNR office on Washington's Landing (Herr's Island), just across from the affected area, PennDOT announced that they went back to their engineers to look at another solution. What they came up with was building a retaining walls so that the 10-12 foot wide trail would be 8-10 feet or so below the maintenance road grade and above the river with another retaining wall and a fence. The bad news was that PennDOT would not be able to roll the $1.5-$2 million cost of the trail into the $92 million budget for the project. It would be someone else's responsibility to come up with that funding.

To the three of us representing the bicycling community, this was all pretty good news. We could have the trail connector we've been wanting all along (rather than trespassing on railroad maintenance roads) and $2 million dollars is within the realm of possibility. The bids for the refurbishing of the Hot Metal Bridge had come in $2 million over budget and a Federal transportation improvement fund somethingorother was able to come up with that so the project could move ahead. With that out of the way, the backchannel connector could easily move up in the funding queue.

The rest of the audience didn't see it that way. You see, they were all residents of Washington's Landing and they had issues well beyond the trail. Because the access road was railroad property and Norfolk-Southern had been unwilling to actually give away or sell the property, Millvale has been looking at other ways to connect their trail to points south. One plan was to use an abandoned railroad bridge at the upstream end of Washington's Landing to take the trail over the backchannel to connect back to the mainland at the already existing bridge at the south end. CSX owns that bridge and even though they aren't using it, they don't want to give it up. They offered to sell it for some exorbitant price for which Millvale could build their own bridge.

Islanders were irate that they hadn't been consulted on this bridge. Some even said that this was the first they had heard about it (even though I had heard about it back in February and Millvale had been working on the plan for a number of years.) One of the first people to voice their opposition asked if a lawsuit brought against PennDOT stopping the project would be enough to "crush" this bridge. The way they see it is that the bridge project is further along. Millvale is looking to start construction next year while PennDOT won't even finalize their design for three years. If this bridge gets built, then when construction finally begins on shore, all the pedestrian and bicycle traffic is going to be redirected onto their island. And once there is that connection to points south, no-one's going to want to spend another $2 million building another connection on the mainland, leaving them stuck with all these undesirables encroaching on their yuppie paradise.

I wanted to stand up and say: "Your island sucks . . . for bicycling. I would trespass on the railroad maintenance road, the way people have been doing for years, before I'd ride on your crappy, narrow paths. It would take about a week for someone with a pair of wire cutters to cut through a chain link fence to provide a throughway."

One of Millvale's interests was to provide access to the amenities on the island; a restaurant and marina, while giving the islanders access to mainland amenities like the rower's club. The Islander's response was to say they only have one little restaurant, not worth building a bridge to.

They also ranted about the plan in general. Realigning the railroad tracks is going to move them 50 feet closer to their island and they wanted to see the studies that indicated that the increase in noise was going to be negligible. The studies they cited (apparently pulled out of their asses and based solely on their own personal opinion) said that it would increase the noise in "their back yard". They complained about the increased traffic. They complained about not being involved. They complained about not knowing what was going on.

Bullshit. I knew about the plans back in February. The project proposal is available online. The general outline was covered on television, radio and in newspapers. They have no excuse to be surprised.

One of the Islanders said, "We open our arms to everyone." That's a lie. All the time I was there, I felt like I was an uninvited interloper. I was not looked at as a potential ally in getting the trail built, I was one of those cyclists who were going to be cutting through their community on my way elsewhere. And every time they talked about the bridge, or Millvale or the trail users, it was always in the form of Us vs. Them.

Being one of Them, I saw no open arms.

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