County commissioners want to save old bridge in city

Allentown's Reading Road span may be over 200 years old

Posted: 5:12 PM EDT Oct 10, 2013   Updated: 5:17 PM EDT Oct 10, 2013
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A majority of Lehigh County commissioners want to see an old bridge in Allentown preserved and repaired, rather than replaced.

By a 7-2 vote Wednesday night, commissioners rejected hiring an engineer to begin design work aimed at replacing the Reading Road Bridge.

The stone arch bridge, which may be nearly 200 years old, spans Cedar Creek at the foot of West Walnut Street in the city's West End.

The commissioners favored preservation despite a recommendation from Glenn Solt, the county's general services director, that "to spend money rehabbing this bridge is to waste money. I do not waste taxpayers' money."

It makes more sense to replace the bridge, confirmed County Executive Matthew Croslis. "It will cost us a little more now, but it will save us more in the long run."

"We have to preserve our history," said Commissioner Percy Dougherty.

"It is not historic, it is old," said Solt.

"We have an opportunity to preserve something here that is historic, contrary to what Glenn thinks," said Commissioner Michael Schware.

Solt said that is not his opinion, indicating potential funding sources determined the bridge does not qualify as an historical structure.

Supporting replacement were Commissioners Dan McCarthy and David Jones, the only Democrats. Jones said he voted yes because "it's never good to spend money twice."

If the bridge is rehabbed rather than replaced, "I don't know how long the repairs will last," said Solt. "They may last two years or six months."

Solt said the estimated cost to get the existing bridge "operational" is about $379,000, not including engineering costs. He guessed the total cost could be $500,000.

He said replacing the bridge would cost $750,000.

Solt said a three-ton weight limit is posted on the bridge. "It cannot be downgraded further; it must be closed."

Solt warned if the county does nothing, the bridge will be ordered closed by the state. "That will happen sometime this month; we will close the bridge."

Solt said replacement would result in a bridge with no weight restrictions. But if it is repaired, some kind of weight restriction will remain.

 Schware said some neighbors like a weight restriction on the bridge, because it  keeps trucks out of the nearby Walnut Street neighborhood. 

Solt said the state doesn't allow weight restrictions on a bridge to be used to keep trucks out of neighborhoods. But he said Allentown could restrict truck traffic on Walnut Street.

City resident Michael Molovinsky told commissioners the Reading Road span is one of the oldest bridges in Lehigh County. He said it was built in the 1820s, on the road between Easton and Reading. He suggested the bridge might last another 200 years.

Molovinsky noted it has outlasted the 15th Street Bridge over Little Lehigh Creek in Allentown, which was built in 1954 and is being replaced.

Commissioner Scott Ott said his amateur observation is that most of the bridges he's heard about "collapsing or having major problems in the modern era were built in the modern era."

Whether repaired or replaced, Solt said construction will begin in March 2014 and the work should be completed by next October.

Solt said the nearby Union Street bridge, which already is being replaced, won't reopen until late 2014.

 Schware, who lives in that neighborhood, said: "We can't have two bridges closed at the same time." He noted both Raub Middle School and Union Terrace Elementary School are nearby.

Croslis agreed the county wants to avoid having both bridges closed at the same time.

The county executive said replacing the bridge is the quickest and most cost-effective solution, but told commissioners "if you want to repair it, that's fine. That's your choice."

The commissioners now will have to propose an amendment to the county's capital plan to authorize money to repair the bridge.