Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ben Franklin Ramp Design Contract Is A Major Victory In A Long Campaign

Originally posted on Greater Philadelphia Bicycle News by our friends at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

This week the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) Board of Commissioners gave the go-ahead on the design phase of the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway ramp project. The engineering firm, Amman and Whitney was awarded the $598,000 contract to design the walkway. Before the vote, DRPA Chief Engineer Mike Venuto stated that the project will include public meetings during the design process. The optimistic timeline is 2013 for design and 2014 for construction if funds are made available.

The saga of the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway goes all the back to the Bicycle Coalition's earliest days. Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition member Bob Thomas led a successful campaign in 1973 to reopen the bridge walkway that had been closed due to the Korean War (yes, you read that correctly). After the walkway was closed for construction in 2000, the Bicycle Coalition and DVRPC negotiated with the DRPA to establish an alternating north and south walkway closure policy.


Making this view possible without ascending 3 vertiginous sets of metal stairs
There were more closures to come. Four weeks after the September 11th attacks, the DRPA ordered a walkway shutdown after KYW-TV's Paul Moriarity broadcast a report speculating about the walkways' vulnerability to a terrorist attack. Moriarity emailed the Coalition stating that the motive of the report was to have the bridge walkway actively patrolled, not closed. Negotiations and a public outcry forced the hand of the Authority and the walkway was reopened in December 2001.

But it was the one month closure after the London Bombings in July 2005, along with several incidents of bridge users being trapped on the bridge after the gates were locked, that spurred BCGP volunteers Matthew Anastasi and Jim Kriebel to form a Ben Franklin Bridge walkway committee. Their goals were to obtain full access to the bridge and the construction of an ADA accessible ramp. After several meetings with no movement, DRPA finally added the ramp into the 2008 5-year Capital Improvement Program.

The home stretch wasn't smooth. In 2011, the Authority suffered a public relations crisis related to a 20% bridge toll hike. The Board felt the pressure of "unnecessary expenses" and deferred ramp project in the 2011 and 2012 programs. A coalition of advocates, Camden-based businesses, nonprofits, and elected officials pressed back, and got the decision reversed in early 2012.

Over the years, a thawing relationship between the Authority and walkway users has yielded improvements to access: hours have been extended, winter weather closures have shortened, and new security cameras are being added. The ramp project, however, is the first big expenditure from the Authority's Capital Budget to make the bridge walkway more accessible for all users. We will be following the progress of the project and notify you when public meetings are scheduled.

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