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Transportation Priorities and the Walnut Street Bridge
By Raymond W. Britcher, PE, Harrisburg Section

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
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.

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

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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