June 4, 2005

Delaware Department of Transportation will not tear down the Tyler McConnell Bridge over the Brandywine. Instead, the crossing will be expanded by erecting an adjacent two-lane bridge. However, transportation secretary Nathan Hayward expects that the existing one will eventually ugly away.

Hayward revealed in a surprise announcement before the General Assembly's 'bond bill' committee that he had given up on being able to obtain partial federal financing for a picturesque four-lane replacement. While so doing, he acknowledged that he has abandoned as impractical the alternative of the state paying the entire cost, which he has been advocating for more than two years.

Measuring the transportation needs of a growing population against sharply escalating construction costs and political reluctance of the General Assembly to provide new revenue sources or increase the take from existing ones, there "is just no way we can justify [100% state financing to] tear down the bridge," he told a meeting of areawide civic association officers.

He said traffic volume requires that "we move on with design and construction" without further delay. The most recent plan called for construction to begin during fiscal 2006. That timetable has slipped by at least three years.

The crossing, which carries Barley Mill Road to a 'T' intersection with Powder Mill and New Bridge Roads and the entrance to the Du Pont Experimental Station, is a two-lane pinchpoint in the otherwise

four-lane transcounty State Route 141.

Figures presented during the last public workshop session DelDOT held on the Tyler McConnell project, in June, 2003, put the estimated cost of a new four-lane bridge at $40 million. Building a parallel span next to the existing bridge would run somewhere in the neighborhood of $27 million, depending upon design. With Federal Highway Administration approval of the project, the federal government would provide up to 80% of the financing.

As Delaforum previously reported, that approval was unlikely because the existing bridge is serviceable -- albeit inadequate to handle present traffic volume -- and could

Tyler McConnell Bridge -- Transportation secretary Nathan Hayward said the ugly duckling will get a beautiful sister.

possibly qualify as an historic structure.

Hayward's remarks before County Executive Christopher Coons's monthly 'umbrella' civic associations session on Jun. 2 focused largely on DelDOT's attempt to cope with restrictions on its capital spending plans for the coming fiscal year.

He justified as necessary the controversial set of project cutbacks, but said that, for the most part, that involves postponements rather than cancellations.

As he was speaking, Wilmington Area Planning Council was debating relative priorities of the projects on the list. It ended up backing away from its previous challenge to the list and unanimously approved it. Council approval of a three-year Transportation Improvement Plan meets the 'public participation' requirement to obtain federal financing for listed projects.

While figuratively throwing in the towel on his fight for a more aesthetic bridging of the Brandywine than has existed since the early 1950s, Hayward held out hope that his position may be vindicated by whoever occupies his position a decade or two from now.

The parallel two-lane span, he said, will be "a hell of a sight better looking than what's there now." The resultant contrast, he reasoned, will build public pressure "to do something with the ugly bridge next to it."

The design of the new bridge will be either an elliptical arch -- which Hayward previously said he favored for a replacement four-lane span -- or a steel span supported by concrete piers on the banks of the creek, he said.

While saying he "hated to give up" his concept of providing what has come in planning circles to be called 'context-sensitive design' compatible with Hagley Mills, Henry Clay village and other elements of that stretch of the Brandywine Valley, Hayward indicated that he carried the fight down to the wire.

As recently as May 27, an official DelDOT spokesman, responding to an inquiry from Delaforum, said that the next step in the Tyler McConnell saga would be receipt sometime in midsummer of an engineering report. Hayward referred obliquely to that in his remarks saying that DelDOT "even had the experts out" to see if they could find any flaws in the existing bridge that would justify tearing it down.

He pointed out that there was no lack of irony in the situation.

A half century ago, even as the Du Pont Co. on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its founding was paying to turn Hagley, the long-abandoned site of its original black-power operation, into a permanent public attraction, it also was putting up a quarter million dollars to improve access to the functioning experimental station. The former was a rather lavish venture while "they were pushing for the fastest, cheapest way to get their employees to work," Hayward said. To that end, a stone-arch design originally considered for the Tyler McConnell bridge was rejected, he added.

A much different Du Pont Co. nowadays has similar motivation for expanding the traffic-carrying capacity of the crossing, but there is no chance that it would be willing to be involved in its financing.

The planning council's acceptance of DelDOT's scaled back plans for fiscal 2006 was conditioned on an understanding that some or all of the projects would be restored if additional federal support becomes available. Delaforum previously reported that possibility, but Heather Dunnigan, the council's senior planner, said that, at best, only a small amount of additional money may be forthcoming.

In response to a directive from Governor Ruth Ann Minner, DelDOT sliced $202 million worth of work from its agenda for the fiscal year beginning July 1. That reduced the plan by about a third to $445 million. Of the cuts, about $80 million involved projects specific to New Castle County.

As listed by the council, top priority for restoration goes to putting the rebuilding of the Interstate 95 interchange with Concord Pike back in. Hayward told the civic leaders that had been pushed back because it was a major project whose delay would account for a large amount of the required cuts. "We had to go for the big stuff first," he said.

A relatively small cut which has proven controversial with the civic leaders was elimination of money for preliminary planning for an extension of Churchmans Road through Delaware Park to Kirkwood Highway. Hayward said that was done because the racetrack's management is adamantly opposed to building bridges over the two sets of main-line railroad tracks which traverse the property. A study looking into the feasibility of building a tunnel under the tracks is underway, he said.

"I am not willing to spend public money to plan a road that might not have a chance to be built," he said. That could happen, he added, if a tunnel is found not to be feasible and "you have a large, politically powerful land owner such as Delaware Park saying 'not over our dead body are you going to build a bridge on our land'."

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Read previous Delaforum article: Cuts may be restored
Read previous Delaforum article:
Planning council blasts DelDOT’s capital-spending cutbacks
Read previous Delaforum article: Hayward sticks by his insistence on a four-lane McConnell Bridge

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