April 24, 2001

Doubledecking most likely is out; three lanes apparently has a better-than-even chance of making it when the decision about what to do with the Tyler McConnell Bridge comes down.

While nothing is close to being final and there is even a mathematical possibility that sticking with the status quo could emerge as the conclusion after nearly a year of deliberation, the advisory committee charged with sorting the options and coming up with a recommendation for resolving the long-running controversy over the future of the Route 141 Brandywine crossing displayed a somewhat surprising degree of unanimity as the viable choices were laid before it.

The group plans at least two meeting devoted to discussing and debating those options and a workshop-style public hearing to solicit views from a broader audience.

"Am I right in assuming this alternative is in for a fair amount of trouble?" consultant William Hellmann asked cautiously at the group's Apr. 23 meeting after describing how a new four-lane bridge might be erected at a higher elevation straddling the existing two-lane one.

Besides having an aesthetically unpleasing impact on the picturesque Brandywine Valley 'viewscape' and requiring Du Pont Co. to enlarge its exhaust stacks and move the perimeter fence at its Experimental Station to accommodate its bulk, such a structure would trash Delaware Department of Transportation's previous commitment to provide a crossing having no more than four traffic lanes, he said.

Moving on to an alternative which had been advanced during a previous incarnation of the McConnell Bridge studies, Hellmann noted that two new lanes might be swung about 25 feet above the present two to produce only a slightly less obtrusive result, but one which also would play havoc with Du Pont's air pollution permits. They are granted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency based on the present fence and exhaust alignments.

In either case, he said, "the bridge would become the dominant feature in the valley as opposed to the valley itself being the dominant feature."

Moving on to a third possibility, he said replacing the McConnell Bridge with a four-lane crossing elsewhere along the waterway between Interstate 95 in Wilmington and the Pennsylvania border also seems to pose insurmountable difficulties. "The creek is just packed with sensitive areas. No site has less impact than putting it at the existing site," he said.

What was surprising to an observer at that point was that Hellmann had effectively laid eight design options -- nine if 'no build' is included -- onto the proverbial table and, with virtually no discussion and literally no dissent from the 36-member committee, quickly slid three of them off.

Moreover, he had done so after encountering the first bit of testiness to emerge during the 10 meetings the group has held.

Hellmann bristled when New Castle County Councilman Richard Abbott accused the consultants of "overengineering" the options to render their less favored ones unpalatable. "This process is designed to lead to one inevitable conclusion," Abbott charged.

"We're friends, but I resent that remark after all the work we've put into [accommodating] this group," Hellmann shot back.

Abbott, whose district includes the crossing site and who has long opposed expanding the bridge, had objected to Hellmann's having said that limited or no expansion would divert a significant amount of traffic to other roads through the broader Brandywine Valley. The councilman maintained that "as long as you keep traffic [across the bridge] moving, people will not bail out [because] people like to take shortcuts, not 'longcuts'."

Although replacing the existing bridge with a new four-lane span and building another two-lane bridge adjacent to the present one are among the options Hellmann presented, there seemed to be a decided prejudice among attenders at the meeting toward two options that would result in three traffic lanes at the crossing. One would limit the width of the adjacent bridge to one vehicular lane and a bicycle-pedestrian path; the other would expanding the support structure of the existing bridge sufficiently to permit widening its roadway to fit in a third lane.

Travel direction in the middle lane would alternate between eastbound in the morning -- when most of the traffic consists of commuters headed to the Experimental Station, the Astra Zeneca headquarters and research complex and the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children -- and westbound in the afternoon -- when the workers are going home.

The other options call for keeping the present two lanes but restricting traffic to moving in just one direction during the rush hours, restricting travel on the bridge during those times to vehicles with more than one occupant, or charging a toll.

Any of those options would divert traffic to other roads and require installation of signs, signals and perhaps scanning equipment to operate, Hellmann said.

He also said it has yet to be determined whether the present bridge can be removed because, although it dates only from the 1960s and is strictly functional in design, he said it is eligible for federal protection as an historic resource.

In another presentation at the committee meeting, Catherine Dennis, planning manager with Delaware Transit Corp., said the agency is studying the possibility of inaugurating up to four bus routes which would cross the bridge to serve the major employers on its east side. Most likely to be first is one linking Christiana Mall and Prices Corner with the area. The others would connect with the New Castle area, Latina Square near Hockessin and the Newark area.

There used to be a cross-county bus route which used the McConnell Bridge but it was dropped several years ago for lack of patronage. There currently are bus routes on Concord Pike and Kennett Pike and serving the Du Pont Hospital.

She said DelDOT origin-and-destination surveys have determined that Route 141 "is predominately a commuter route" with most of the workers using it living to the west rather than,.as has been widely supposed, in northern Brandywine Hundred and nearby Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, she added, bus service will become a viable alternative for the type of people comprising the area workforces only with "aggressive marketing and strong support from the employers."

Transit consultant Kenneth Goon followed with a presentation about inaugurating so-called light-rail service -- the modern equivalent of the old interurban trolley car -- on the abandoned railroad right-of-way from Barley Mill Plaza on Lancaster Pike through Westover Hills to Rising Sun on the outskirts of Wilmington at the northern base of the Rockford Park hill. The line could be extended, he said, using the connecting lightly used freight railroad through Greenville to Chadds Ford, Pa.

Also possible, he said, would be a monorail system, such as has been proposed by state Representative David Ennis, along Route 141. But that more properly should be designed as a regional amenity, he added.

Goon described both ideas as "very long range" and strictly conceptual at this stage. They also would be vary costly.

The 1.5 mile rail line, beginning where Ursuline Academy plans to locate athletic fields and including a station at Kennett Pike, would require, for instance, an initial capital investment of about $31 million. Operating and maintenance costs have not been estimated. He said it could be expected to serve about 20 people a day.

2001. All rights reserved.

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