January 3, 2003

Transportation officials insist that the design of the new Tyler McConnell Bridge over the Brandywine is not yet cast in stone. That worn cliché not withstanding, no one familiar with the saga of the much-debated span holds any lingering doubt that it literally will be soon -- if, indeed, it is not already.

Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward could not have been clearer on Jan. 2 when he declared at a press briefing: "We think it is time to reach consensus and make something happen."

That something will be a new four-lane bridge supported either by concrete girders or arches straddling the Brandywine on five piers at the location and elevation of the present structure. In all likelihood, there will be a separate bridge for use by pedestrians and bicyclists at the base of the piers.

The new bridge, to be sure, is presently described as the third and fourth of four options that will be officially presented for public comment at a 'workshop'-style meeting between 4 and 8 p.m. on Jan. 6 in

Arsht Hall on the University of Delaware's Wilmington campus. The two other options call for a separate two-lane bridge next to the existing one, either of matching steel-girder or more modern concrete-girder construction.

Hayward said that the final decision will be based largely on public preferences expressed at the 'workshop'. That format allows for attenders to submit written comments and give them orally to Delaware Department of Transportation representatives. There is no public discussion or testimony at the session.

The press briefing and an earlier private presentation to elected officials and newspaper editorialists were part of an obvious DelDOT effort to make a strong case for an updated plan. As far as could be determined, initial reaction to the new plan is favorable.

Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward makes a point at a press briefing.

Hayward made no effort during his presentation at the press briefing to give the competing options equal billing. He described the proposed stone structures as "harmonious with their surroundings" and referred to the original bridge, and by implication its possible clones, as having "been built 50 years ago in record time and at the lowest possible cost."

He told Delaforum that his personal preference is for the stone bridge with the arches.

The designs were produced by Tallahassee, Fla.-based Figg Engineering Group, which is nationally recognized for having designed bridges in scenic venues. It promotes itself as specializing in "providing bridges as art." No details were provided about how and when the firm was, as the DelDOT presentation booklet said, "added to [the] project team."

Marc Coté, project manager, acknowledged that the new designs came out of an environmental and historic assessment process which ran concurrently with and continued beyond deliberations of a 38-member advisory committee. The former held at least 18 plenary sessions over a period of 10 months between September, 2000, and July, 2001, and came up with a recommendation to build a parallel span. Hayward and Governor Ruth Ann Minner formally accepted that recommendation in February, 2002.

Hayward referred briefly to that decision by remarking, "We have come up with a better way of doing it."

As late as September, 2002, DelDOT consultant Robert Kramer told Delaforum that

The plan Hayward and DelDOT apparently prefer would replace the present Tyler McConnell Bridge (above) with a new structure using one of the two conceptual design options illustrated below.

the findings and recommendations of the review group would not take precedence over those of the advisory panel. The panel's deliberations were all done in public session; the review group's meetings apparently have had no outside attenders. At least six Delaforum requests to be advised of the time and location of its meetings were not responded to in timely fashion by DelDOT's public relations department.

Coté said the new designs do not reflect any change in position about the project on the part of DelDOT, but are the result of "weighing the effects of a new two-lane or four-lane bridge on the historical resources" of the area. He indicated that building a new four-lane bridge with fewer supporting piers "would have less [adverse] impact." In any case, he said, such a review is required by the Federal Highway Administration as part of any  project the federal government will partly finance.

In his remarks, Hayward said that the difficulty in determining the best way to alleviate the bottleneck caused by the existing two-lane bridge along state route 141, which elsewhere along its entire length  is four lanes wide, is blending in with the natural and historic attributes of the Brandywine Valley. "We have [economic] growth and transportation needs coming right up against the need to preserve Delaware's past," he said.

He said the Tyler McConnell crossing "is not just a bridge," but a significant element in an area that has both historic attributes -- particularly the original Du Pont black powder mills at Hagley and present-day commercial significance with major Du Pont and Astra Zeneca facilities nearby.

That was not as widely recognized a concern in 1952 when the present Tyler McConnell Bridge was built. He said that the overriding factor then was accommodating a desire by the Du Pont Co. to provide better access to its then expanding Experimental Station. "Du Pont paid $250,000, just a little less than half the [total] cost toward building it," Hayward said.

He dismissed any suggestion that the existing bridge could be considered historic in its own right. Although it was an early example of the use of what are described in the business as 'hammerhead' piers, Hayward said, "There is nothing unique about those piers; they were put there because they were cheap and fast."

The proposed stone bridges, he said, can be constructed within the $40 million authorized for the Tyler McConnell project in DelDOT's long-range capital budget. He said the 'effective cost', when future maintenance and anticipated major renovations are taken into consideration, is actually less for concrete construction. He said the new bridge will "last for at least 100 years."

Carolann Wicks, DelDOT's chief engineer, said a new bridge could be designed and built in about three years. Although she and Hayward both said there is no specific timetable at this point for doing so, Wicks said the status of an agreement with the advisory panel that no construction will start until semi-annual traffic counts show an immediate need is uncertain.

Noting that the present bridge "is dreadfully congested, mornings and evenings," Hayward said that proceeding to build a replacement span is a responsible step. "Nobody is saying it's the wrong thing to do; we think that it is the better thing to do," he said.

© 2003. All rights reserved.

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Read Delaforum's first story about the McConnell Bridge project
Read Delaforum's story about the advisory committee recommendations
Go to DelDOTS Tyler McConnell Bridge project Web site

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