Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Bridge may seem scary, but officials say it's safe

By Linda K. Harris
Inquirer Staff Writer

The dilapidated South Street Bridge may look like a horror-movie backdrop, it may inspire fright in people, but city officials say the bridge will be safe, at least for three more years, until a new one can be built.

"It's kind of scary," said graduate student Susan Rennolds, 22, who lives in Center City and crosses the bridge daily for classes at the University of Pennsylvania. "I'd be skeptical to ride my bike. I haven't, because of the bridge."

Scott Anderson, 46, crosses the bridge several times a day, including his walk from the University City train stop to his job with the School District of Philadelphia in Center City after his commute from Wrightstown in Bucks County.

"Like, what's wrong with the bridge?" Anderson said. "Is it going to fall while I'm on it?"

The South Street Bridge, built in 1923, is a paved-over lift bridge; its jaws were permanently closed in the mid-1950s. It provides a straight shot from southwestern Center City to the heart of the University of Pennsylvania and the rest of West Philadelphia. It also provides access to the Schuylkill Expressway.

When there are no restrictions, giant tractor-trailers, cars, buses, taxis and delivery trucks constantly rumble across. A steady stream of pedestrians and cyclists also traverses the bridge.

Until recently, pedestrians had a dizzyingly good view of the river and the expressway beneath them through the gaping holes that dotted the sidewalks on each side of the bridge.

But in February, falling concrete from the bridge landed on the expressway, which had to be shut down. City officials blamed the heavy salting of the bridge during the brutal winter. Less than a year earlier, a similar incident had occurred.

On May 27, SEPTA began rerouting the Route 40 and Route 12 buses away from the bridge, said Gary Fairfax, spokesman for SEPTA. A typical SEPTA bus loaded with passengers weighs about 38,000 pounds, he said. The city posted a sign restricting use to vehicles 18 tons - 36,000 pounds - or less.

The city also paved over both sidewalks with asphalt, and both have been closed.

However, the city's chief bridge engineer for the Streets Department, John Lutz, said the problems had been resolved. Aging concrete has been removed, and the structure of the bridge is solid.

"The horse that's carrying the structure is the steel beams," Lutz said. "That's adequate to carry the load."

Yesterday, SEPTA buses were back on their regular route and using the bridge.

Lutz said that next week the city would reopen the southern sidewalk and remove the concrete barriers that are providing an ersatz sidewalk.

"There was concern before we did these repairs that it would be needed to reduce the weight," Lutz said. But with the structure sound and the decayed concrete removed, he said, city engineers are confident that the bridge has a few safe years left in it.

"We're trying to be safe here, and prudent," Lutz said.

In March 2007, the city is planning to close the bridge for about a year and a half to build a $40 million showpiece, Lutz said.

"It will be grand," he said. "It will have enhancement lighting, a nice wide sidewalk, a dedicated bike lane in the sidewalk area."

Until then, the bridge probably will continue to bring some trepidation, despite all assurances.

"I always feel it shaking," said Joe Antonio, 35, of Ambler, who also works at the School District of Philadelphia offices. "It's normal for this bridge."

Contact staff writer Linda K. Harris at 215-854-4417 or lharris@phillynews.com.

© 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.