October 22, 2003

Plans to tear down the Tyler McConnell Bridge and replace it with a more graceful four-lane span may not be as firm as they sounded 10 months ago when Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward declared himself willing to do the virtually unthinkable in the highway-building business and give up federal dollars to make that happen. Or are they?

Ultimate design for the most-talked-about highway project in Delaware history apparently is still as much up in the air as the high-level crossing of the Brandywine. The only thing certain is that they're still talking.

A panel of 25 individuals and representatives of affected businesses and organizations, referred to collectively as 'stakeholders' and officially as 'Section 106 Parties', convened for the 18th time on Oct. 20 to discuss five options for the bridge, with four alternatives for one of them, and two options to accommodate walkers and bicyclists.

'Section 106' refers to the section of the federal law governing public projects which requires that environmental, historical and cultural consequences receive full consideration before Uncle Sam signs off helping to pay for the project.

Asked why the panel was still discussing options for the bridge when the state's chief highway official, with the stated approval of the governor, had made what appeared to be a final design decision and declared willingness to have the state finance the full cost, Bill Hillmann, Delaware Department of Transportation's lead consultant on the project, told Delaforum that it was necessary to complete the public participation process against the possibility, no matter how remote, of federal support.

"We have to go through the process under federal requirements," said DelDOT project director Marc Coté.

Delaforum was unable to reach Hayward for comment as this article was being prepared. But DelDOT spokesman Mike Williams, in response to an inquiry, said: "The department position is that the department has a preferred alternative and that is to build a new four-lane bridge that is context sensitive to the valley.  We are proceeding with trying to get federal dollars approved for the construction of the preferred alternative bridge.  If we are unable to use federal dollars for the construction of the new four-lane bridge, we can use state dollars instead."

Data contained in an elaborate comparison of all aspects of the project distributed at the 'Section 106' meeting listed total cost of a modification of the design Hayward advocated back in January, which now seems to be his and DelDOT's favored alternative, of between $37.5 million and $39 million, depending on the placement of a companion pedestrian and bicycle path. Hayward's January preference would cost between $38.5 million and $40 million. Cost of a parallel span is said to range between $24.5 million and $27 million.

The disparity would be reduced over the expected 100-year life of the new bridge by the anticipated necessity of having to replace the existing structure when its time expires a half-century from now, according to the estimates, which use current cost figures and dollar values.

There is no estimate given for what portion of the cost would be picked up by the federal government. Williams said, however, that if the state does not get any federal money for the McConnell Bridge project, money in Delaware's annual transportation allotment not used for the bridge can be applied to other DelDOT projects. "Taxpayers don’t lose any money; the money just gets exchanged between 'pots'," he said.

The options before the 'Section 106' panel are: (1.) a parallel span with steel girders; (2.) a parallel bridge with concrete block girders; (3.) a replacement bridge with concrete girders; (4.) a replacement bridge with elliptical arches; or (5.) a replacement bridge with parabolic arches. The first four were presented at the January public 'workshop' with the fourth having been previously announced as Hayward's preference. The fifth option was said to have been developed by DelDOT's design consultants in response to comments received at the 'workshop'. It was originally presented to the panel at a meeting on May 2, but not made public. It does not appear on the project Web site.

The Oct. 20 session was the first "Section 106" meeting about which Delaforum was notified, despite repeated requests in the past to be advised of their scheduling, The panel is a public body, as described in Delaware's open-meeting law, whose gatherings are required to be announced to and accessible by the public.

Tone of the discussion and detailed minutes of the May session, contained in the briefing book at this one, indicated that panel is nowhere near to reaching a consensus as public presentations by Hayward and at a Delaware Department of Transportation 'workshop' back in January seemed to say.

The minutes reveal considerable disputation of points Hayward reportedly made at the May meeting. His contention that, if there were no existing bridge, now building one at that location, rather than somewhere else, would be necessary. Mary Jane Elliott, of Preservation Delaware, reportedly disagreed with the DelDOT "assumption" that traffic volume justified expanding the present bridge's capacity and said she still favored not to build any bridge there.

In another context, Hellmann told the Oct. 20 meeting that "the no-build option is off the table."

After more than a year of deliberation a DelDOT 'working group', which included a broader range of civic and political participants than the 'Section 106' panel, recommended putting up a parallel two-lane pier-supported span next to the existing one. Hayward and Governor Ruth Ann Minner had previously accepted that recommendation, but changed their minds after what Hayward in January described as "further consideration."

There have been objections raised to replacing the existing bridge, which was built in 1952, with a new one because the existing one is said to have historical attributes. Its supporting piers are described as an early example of the use of concrete piers with a hammerhead configuration in highway bridge construction. Hayward, however, previously said, "There is nothing unique about those piers; they were put there because they were cheap and fast." Nevertheless, the existing bridge is deemed eligible for inclusion on the national historical register although it is not listed there now.

Don Klima, director of the Office of Federal Agency Programs, appeared at the 'Section 106' meeting to reiterate a threat made in a letter included in the briefing book that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation would decide the issue if the local group "cannot bring [it] to closure." In his oral presentation, he compared the bridge project with one to provide additional security for the Washington Monument in the nation's capital, noting that some compromises in appearance and setting of landmarks have to be accepted to accomplish what is generally recognized as an important purpose.

He acknowledged that, when referring to Hagley Museum "we're talking about a property that is world-class." Hayward said in January that building a bridge supported by architecturally esthetic arches, rather than piers, was essential to the visual integrity of Hagley Museum and the rest of the Henry Clay valley. As Delaforum previously reported, he later acknowledged that objection to it by Hagley officials was a key reason for his rejecting the proposal for a parallel span.

The panel was told that Federal Highway Administration officials, during a meeting with the 'project team' in August, asked for alternatives to the concrete-pier option to address what was described as the "adverse visual impact" on Hagley. Linda Figg, of Figg Engineering, presented four possible ways to cover the concrete piers supporting both the existing bridge and a parallel one with a stone casing or veneer matching the construction material used in the vicinity.

Although neither she, Hellmann nor Tom Myers, of the Federal Highway Administration's Dover office, said so, but the context of the presentation clearly indicated that the first option may be the federal agency's preference. It will make the determination about whether federal money is provided for the project.

Daniel Muir, the museum's deputy director, said covering the piers "does not address the problem" nor alter Hagley's objections to building a parallel span. "The adveerse impact is not [the piers'] appearance. It's their bulk and the fact they are there," he said.

Elliott suggested that Hagley consider relocating its main entrance, which is  literally in the shadow of the existing bridge. Muir replied that the iron gate used as the entrance has been there since 1906 and said that the foundation that is Hagley's parent organization, does not own the land surrounding the museum and Eleutherian Library. Howeverr, he added that there currently is a study being done to determine "how best to use our land."

Options for the foot- and bicycle path are to place it either on the bridge, as a fifth lane on a new bridge or a third lane of a parallel span, or run it down the steep embankment on the east side of the Brandywine and cross the stream on a separate bridge underneath the highway bridge and just above the water.

"It is important that this project not only move cars but be multi-modal," Gail Van Gilder, of Delaware Greenways, said. The reason no one now walks to work at the Du Pont Experimental Station and few commute by bicycle "is because [they] don't have the ability to do so," she added.

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