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Historic Washington Crossing Bridge to be replaced

by Amie Rukenstein

The historic Washington Crossing Bridge, which connects the two halves of the national historic landmark Washington Crossing Parks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania is scheduled for replacement.

The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which owns and operates the Washington Crossing Bridge, along with 19 other spans over the Delaware River, published a Request for Proposals (RFP) on January 18 seeking professional engineering services to design and carry out construction of a new bridge. It stated: “In accordance with its mission to provide safe and efficient river crossings between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Commission desires to proceed with the replacement of the WCTSB to address operational and safety issues.”

In an article marking the 100th anniversary of the Bridge’s “toll freedom” in 2022″, the Commission remarked: “Due to age, traffic usage, and other wear and tear, the bridge’s load rating has been reduced to the current 3-ton limit. A bridge monitor is posted on the bridge’s New Jersey side to thwart crossings of oversized vehicles. In 2021, 1,865 vehicle turnarounds took place at the bridge and State Police issued 17 summonses and 10 warnings to violators. The bridge is the only Commission crossing that is outfitted with traffic signals at each end to control crossings of oversized vehicles.The bridge’s superstructure was determined to be “fair” when the structure was last inspected in 2020.” A recent press release from the DRJTBC noted that inspections of all the Commission’s brides are happening now.

The RFP states: “The Project includes scoping, preliminary engineering, environmental services, alternatives analysis, public involvement, documentation and other professional engineering type services for the replacement of the WCTSB to address existing bridge and approach roadway geometric and structural deficiencies as well as provide a safe and efficient vehicular and pedestrian crossing of the Delaware River between the Washington Crossing Historic Park located in Washington Crossing, PA and the Washington Crossing State Park located in Titusville, NJ. These parks preserve the history of General George Washington’s crossing the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War and provide historical and recreational park destinations.”

When George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware on the fateful night of December 25, 1776 to march to Trenton and turn the tide of the Revolutionary War, there was no bridge. There was only ferry service until the first bridge to span the distance between what is now Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania and Titusville, NJ was built in 1835 –  a covered wooden bridge. The piers built for that bridge are the same ones used today. Various floods during the 19th century washed away a series of wooden bridges.

The current iron truss bridge was built in 1904. According to the RFP “The length on the bridge is 876’-7” back wall to back wall and the length of the spans are 143’, except for span number 3 which is 137’ in length. The bridge has the narrowest width available to traffic of any Commission-owned crossing. The roadway, which carries two lanes of traffic, has a clear width of 15’ between wheel guards with a 5” open steel grid floor. The New Jersey approach roadway has a sharp S-curve making it difficult for vehicles to enter/exit the bridge without encroaching into the oncoming traffic lane. Pedestrian traffic is also accommodated via a 3’6” wide wood plank walkway, cantilevered outside of the downstream truss. The bridge is currently posted for a 3-ton weight limit and a 15-mph speed limit.”

Because the Washington Crossing Bridge does not have a toll, it is popular for commuters despite the reality that care must be exercised in approaching it and travelling over it. In fact, the DRJTBC employs bridge-watchers to ensure that vehicles more than three tons and/or trailers do not attempt the crossing but are instead directed to the Scudder Falls Toll Bridge several miles away, which has a PA-bound toll. The narrowness of the bridge restricts speed of vehicles entering and exiting the bridge. Local residents say these current restrictions on who can cross provide many benefits – the traffic on the bridge is kept to a minimum, the two hamlets on either side of the bridge receive the traffic calming feature of only slow-driving, regularly-sized vehicles coming and going, and anyone nearby gets the entertainment factor of tractor-trailer drivers who try to sneak on the bridge but are turned away.

The new bridge would fundamentally change the culture of the two sides of the bridge. The RFP states: “The existing six-span truss structure is anticipated to be replaced with a new multi-span structure on a modified alignment to include an increased roadway width to accommodate 12-foot wide travel lanes with 4-foot to 6-foot wide shoulders, a 10-foot wide pedestrian/bicycle multi-use path on upstream side of the structure connecting with existing paths on each side of the river and as further described herewith in this RFP. The new structure is anticipated to result in minor improvements to the Pennsylvania approach roadway to accommodate the wider structure as well as realignment of the New Jersey approach roadway.”

Partial view of the bridge from the Pennsylvania side around 1912 – shortly after the bridge was built.

The historic viewshed in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which includes national landmark structures, will restrict where the widened bridge can be placed. On the New Jersey side, the Nelson House, which is part of the New Jersey park restricts building to the north, a modern restaurant restricts building to the south, and traffic must traverse the D&R feeder canal before reaching the river. On the Pennsylvania side, the McKonkey Ferry Inn stands inches from the road on the site where the original ferry house stood during the Revolution. Across the street the Mahlon Taylor house, built in 1791, overlooks visitors to the historic park village. While the New Jersey side feeds onto Rt. 29, where there is a traffic signal, the Pennsylvania side feeds directly into the Historic Park where pedestrians cross within feet from the entrance to the bridge.

The RFP states the following project goals:

The Project will support a diverse range of goals involving, but not limited to, mobility, the environment, recreation, cultural history, and community as described below. 

  • The overarching goal of the Project is to improve mobility and to provide a safe and reliable river crossing for vehicles and pedestrians. The Project will upgrade safety and traffic operational conditions thus alleviate recurring and future traffic congestion on the WCTSB and adjoining roadway segments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Project will support continued economic development and interstate commerce by accommodating the movement of people and goods and provide access for community facilities and emergency services between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 
  • Environmental goals include the preservation of the quality of existing habitat associated with the Delaware River and its associated resources including wetlands, threatened and endangered plant and animal species, and aquatic resources. 
  • Pennsylvania’s Washington Crossing Historic Park, New Jersey’s Washington Crossing State Park, and New Jersey Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park have goals to maintain or improve access for vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle recreational users and tourists that visit their historical park facilities. 
  • Cultural and historic stakeholder goals include minimizing historical impacts wherever possible and implementing context sensitive design solutions. 
  • Community goals include maintaining the charming small town and historical environment of the surrounding areas.

Since the announcement is only in the RFP, no details about the timeline are given, however the timing noted to hire the engineering consultant is fairly quick with anticipated Notice of Award May 28, 2024. The RFP requires that the Consultant host a series of public meetings to be held in Pennsylvania and New Jersey once the contract is awarded. MercerMe will keep an eye out and publicize any opportunities for the public to get more information or express an opinion.

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