Transportation Priorities and the
Walnut Street Bridge
By Raymond W. Britcher, PE, Harrisburg Section
In January 1996, the Walnut Street Bridge over the Susquehanna
River in Harrisburg, PA, lost three of its western spans because
of ice damage. This bridge is the oldest over the Susquehanna
River, having been constructed by the Phoenix Bridge Co. in
1889. After Hurricane Agnes in 1972, vehicular traffic was prohibited,
and it was converted into a pedestrian bridge. The seven western
spans are separated from six eastern spans by a causeway on
City Island. The bridge's eastern spans were immediately the
subject of an extensive restoration project, which produced
superb results. They are now one of the most photographed scenes
in the Harrisburg area.
A limited edition of 300 prints of "No. 14 Coming
Off Old Shakey" are signed and numbered by the artist,
Earl Blust. Information may be obtained by e-mailing email@example.com.
The western spans were the subject of a lengthy environmental
process with extensive public involvement. The public surveys
showed that there was overwhelming support for the restoration
of the western spans and well over a majority chose a look-alike
option constructed with modern materials. The process also uncovered
opposition to the restoration from businesses and community
leaders of Wormleysburg Borough at the western terminus. The
project was placed before the Harrisburg Area Transportation
Study (HATS), which is the regional metropolitan planning organization
(MPO) for placement on the state's 12-year transportation plan.
The project is on the current 12-year plan but in such a position
that it is unlikely to be done, and the FEMA money that was
assigned to its restoration is no longer available.
The bridges over the major rivers in Pennsylvania were generally
constructed as toll bridges by private companies chartered by
the Commonwealth. The Peoples Bridge Company constructed the
Walnut Street Bridge to provide competition and lower tolls
than its competitor. Editorials in Harrisburg newspapers in
the early 1900s railed against toll bridges, and this opposition
to tolls bore fruit in an amendment to the state constitution
in the late 1920s. Legislation to take over the toll bridges
on the Susquehanna in the 1930s resulted in litigation, more
legislation, and more litigation. Finally, the Commonwealth
was able to take over the bridges, and the tolls were removed
once the cost of the takeover was recovered. Newer bridges constructed
as part of the interstate system would soon reduce the importance
of the Walnut Street Bridge, and it became to be perceived as
a burden on the highway maintenance budget.
The conversion to a pedestrian bridge gave it a new lease on
life. It soon became the preferred way to walk or bike across
the river. Every year, the City has three major festivals along
the riverbank and on City Island-the arts festival on Memorial
Day weekend, the Fourth of July festivities, and Kipona on the
Labor Day weekend. These have grown over the years to major
proportions along with the other uses of City Island, including
the Harrisburg Senators, part of the AA Eastern League.
The current situation is that the eastern spans are well used,
photographed, and liked. The western spans are unused, unfinished,
and controversial. The consensus is that the bridge should be
restored, but funding is a matter of unresolved controversy.
Shortly after the loss of the three western spans, the Peoples
Bridge Coalition was formed to support the restoration of the
bridge, which was nicknamed 'Old Shakey' by a local newspaperman
in the 1970s. They are currently selling a print of a watercolor
of a trolley coming off the east end of the bridge from a 1935
photograph to support their efforts in the ongoing struggle
over the fate of the bridge.
The local section of ASCE worked to have the bridge declared
a state and a national civil engineering monument. They are
sponsoring a history of the Walnut Street Bridge by local transportation
historian, Dan Cupper. It is scheduled to be published in August.
Part of the proceeds from the sale of the print is earmarked
for the book. Anyone wishing more information on the book or
print should send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With limited revenues, more projects than can be funded, and
the demands of protecting the environment, HATS and other MPOs
must make some hard choices to balance the transportation budget
as required by federal law. The need for creative solutions,
partnerships, and tapping alternate sources of revenue was never
so more apparent than in the case of the unrestored western
spans of the Walnut Street Bridge.
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