WEST NORRITON — Construction of a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Schuylkill River upstream from the Route 422 bridge began Wednesday morning with a groundbreaking ceremony that also celebrated a three-year, accelerated 2015 start for widening and rebuilding the Route 422 bridge.
The $9.3 million, 14-foot wide Sullivan’s Bridge will replace a rickety, 3-foot-wide boardwalk-style pedestrian/bicycle walkway bolted onto the side of the Route 422 bridge. That narrow outrigger was built after the Betzwood Bridge, popularly called the “Whistling Bridge,” was demolished in 1995.
The bridge deck for the 604-foot long bridge will be about 25 feet above the river’s surface, much lower than the Route 422 bridge. It will be supported by three concrete piers in the Schuylkill River and connect the Schuylkill River Trail with the trail network in Valley Forge National Historical Park.
State Sen. John Rafferty (R-44th Dist.) recalled driving on the Betzwood Bridge. He said the replacement project was “languishing” 12 years ago when he was in the state Legislature. Construction of Sullivan’s Bridge by J.D. Eckman Inc. of Atglen will be completely financed by federal funds and will be completed in May 2016.
“It’s fantastic both for recreational users and local residents,” said Don Naimoli, the board chairman of the Friends of Valley Forge Park. “This is exciting.”
West Norriton Commissioner Stephen Tolbert Jr., a resident of Betzwood, said he lives within a block of the new bridge.
“I’ve never lived in West Norriton with a completed bridge,” Tolbert said. “I appreciate our legislative team in Harrisburg fighting for this.”
Lower Providence supervisors’ Chairman Colleen Eckman said her 12- and 15-year-old sons ride bicycles on the adjacent Schuylkill River Trail and would enjoy using the new bridge across the river.
“It’s a much needed improvement to keep the pedestrians safe,” Lower Providence Supervisor Patrick Duffy said.
“It’s exciting to be here as the parent of small children,” said Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch.
State Rep. Mike Vereb (R-150th Dist.) said, “It’s been 23 years that this bridge was closed to traffic. People demanded this. It’s amazing what happens when Democrats and Republicans work together.”
The top ten choices of the May 2013 “Name the Bridge” contest, were Anna Holstein Bridge, Betzwood Trail Bridge, Continental Crossing, Freedom Bridge, Nathanael Greene Bridge, Patriot’s Crossing, Revolutionary Bridge, Sullivan’s Bridge, Valley Forge Crossing and Von Steuben Bridge, said Diane Ward, a board member of the Friends of Valley Forge Park.
“There were 23 variations of the Sullivan’s Bridge name among the 252 entries,” Ward said.
Major Gen. John Sullivan was instructed by Gen. George Washington to build a bridge across the Schuylkill River during the 1777-1778 Valley Forge winter encampment by the Continental Army. There is a marker on the Schuylkill River Trail about one-quarter mile upstream from the location of the new Sullivan’s Bridge honoring Sullivan.
“If the Continental soldiers could see what we are beginning here today, wouldn’t they be proud?” said Valley Forge park Superintendent Kate Hammond. “Proud because our community has chosen to name this wonderful new trail bridge for the general who constructed a wooden bridge across the Schuylkill in the middle of winter, 235 years ago. Gen. John Sullivan, who was a son of immigrants to America, oversaw the construction of the original Sullivan’s Bridge. His troops stood in ice-filled waters, and faced shortages of timber and tools to build a bridge to connect the two sides of the encampment. I think they would be honored that their achievement is remembered.”
The assembled politicians dug shovels into a ceremonial pile of dirt to symbolize the start of construction and then resumed the press conference to announce the accelerated start for the $133 million widening and replacement of the five-lane, Route 422 bridge over the Schuylkill River.
Les Toaso, the District 6 executive of PennDOT, said the Route 422 bridge project was originally slated to begin construction in 2018, but the passage of the $2.3 billion Act 89 transportation bill in December 2013 pushed up the schedule for bidding in July 2015 and a construction start in October 2015. The project is expected to take four years.
The bridge handles 83,000 vehicles per day and frequently backs up during rush hour.
A new, westbound Route 422 bridge, with three travel lanes, a future travel lane and two shoulders, will be built just downstream from the existing Route 422 bridge. When that bridge is complete, all traffic will be switched to that bridge while the new, eastbound Route 422 bridge is being built.
The existing bridge is 72 feet wide, and the two new bridges will be about 146-feet wide with eight travel lanes. When the new bridges are opened they will operate with three lanes in each direction with the extra lane reserved for future traffic volume.
Schoch said the “southeast delegation led” efforts for passage of the $2.3 billion transportation bill.
State Rep. Tim Briggs (D-149th Dist.) said Sullivan’s Bridge and the Route 422 project are a critical component of Upper Merion. He suggested the new Route 422 bridges should be named for Rafferty, but Rafferty quickly declined the honor, which got a laugh from about 80 people assembled for the press conference.
Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro lauded the “$133 million investment in Montgomery County, in addition to the millions the county has invested in transportation.”
Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor Jr., the lone Republican commissioner, said, “We call it nonpartisan in county government. There is no partisan way to improve transportation.”
For information on the construction project, visit 422Improvements.com.
Follow Carl Rotenberg on Twitter @CarlWriter.