News

October 23, 2003

Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward said he still favors replacing the Tyler McConnell Bridge with an architecturally esthetic four-lane span and indicated that DelDOT is prepared to do just that if the consultation process about design of the bridge, which is still underway, fails to reach a consensus.

"We think that is the right thing to do," he told Delaforum.

He also said in a telephone interview on Oct. 23 that traffic volume on Delaware 141 has reached a point where it justifies proceeding to final design work next year with the beginning of construction as soon as early 2005.

Ten months ago, Hayward, with the support of Governor Ruth Ann Minner, reversed a previous decision to accept an advisory group's recommendation to expand capacity of the Brandywine crossing by erecting a two-lane span next to the existing one.

That seemed to settle the matter, until Delaforum discovered and reported that ultimate design for the most-talked-about highway project in Delaware history is still being talked about.

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.

The Federal Highway Administration, which controls spending of federal money for highway projects, evidently is objecting to Hayward's idea on the grounds that the existing bridge is eligible to be included on the National Register as an historic structure and therefore should not be taken down.

Back in January, Hayward said that building a bridge supported by arches, rather than piers, is essential to the visual integrity of Hagley Museum and the rest of the Henry Clay valley. That, he said then, took priority over preserving a bridge which he considers to have questionable historic credentials. As Delaforum previously reported, he later acknowledged that objection to a parallel bridge by Hagley officials was a key reason for his rejecting the proposal..

It is still not clear, however, why the 'Section 106' process is continuing.

Cutting off that consultation would be "something like the way [government agencies] use the power of condemnation," Hayward said in the interview. "It's a last resort that I hate to use unless I really have to." DelDOT has used that power only once during his administration of the department -- to acquire property in the Hockessin area in connection with the widening of Limestone Road.

"We believe it is possible that [the 'Section 106' panel] might be able to reach a consensus," he added.

The cabinet secretary acknowledged that the consensus being sought, and the only one he is likely to accept, would not go much beyond modifying his vision for a four-lane bridge. Nevertheless, he said, DelDOT employs consultation with affected parties on numerous projects and he does not want to send a signal that cutting it short in the case of the McConnell bridge represents a change in the policy of listening to the public and being guided by its views.

After the 'Section 106' meeting, 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.

In response to a Delaforum inquiry, DelDOT spokesman Mike Williams 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."

Hayward said previously, and reiterated in the interview, that DelDOT would pay for the new bridge entirely with state money if it cannot obtain a federal appropriation. But, he explained, that money would be replaced from Delaware's annual pool of federal money not designated for any specific project so that the net cost to state taxpayers would be the same as if the highway administration agreed to help finance the new bridge.

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.

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.

The Washington Post has since reported that the National Park Service has scrapped plans to build a visitors center in front of the monument and connected to it by an underground concourse. In response to public objections, it will go with less intrusive security structures, the newspaper article said.

The 'Section 106' 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 adverse 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.

© 2003. All rights reserved.

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