Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that township engineer Curt Genner also did not receive the email from PennDOT's Ryan Whittington regarding the bridge rehabilitation work.
Frustration, anger, and dissension have long-permeated discussions of rehabilitation or reconstruction of Tinicum’s closed Headquarters Road Bridge.
So Tuesday’s presentation of a proposal from the Woodtiger Fund to cover all costs associated with the historical rehabilitation and maintenance of the Headquarters Road Bridge and its approach roads was met with a charged blend of impassioned relief and robust mistrust.
A standing room only crowd attended the meeting of the Tinicum Board of Supervisors and one-way Zoom participation topped 40, a new record for virtual township meeting participation in Tinicum.
Some residents expressed high hopes for the Woodtiger offer, which includes a letter of intent, a “binding, fully enforceable” legal contract, planning, permitting and construction of a rehabilitated structure.
Additionally, future maintenance of the bridge and its roadway approaches as well as funding for any project overages are promised per the proposal.
Resident Steven Gidumal rose to state, “Look at the facts. You asked us to show you the money and we have. From 2011 to 2019, before I purchased my land, point your anger at PennDOT.”
Gidumal’s legal counsel reiterated its claim that PennDOT fraudulently filed ownership actions and ultimately provided a deed granting easements back to his client.
“PennDOT made the decision to let this bridge crumble, it was not because of litigation,” he said. “There is an elegant solution right here that will take further litigation away.”
He thanked the township for the “massive” amount accomplished in the last six months, through Woodtiger-funded studies confirming the bridge can be rehabilitated, increasing its load-bearing integrity while maintaining its historic character.
“You are the big winners here. We are prepared to sign the commitment letter this evening,” attorneys for Gidumal said.
Township historian Katherine Auerbach started succinctly, “PennDOT is not the best steward of our natural resources.”
Opponents to bridge rehabilitation cited a deep mistrust of Woodtiger.
“We will never get a bridge in this way,” said one resident. “PennDOT has their permits in place now, Woodtiger does not.”
Scott Hirsch complained of a high degree of resident and board naivete by suggesting the community fall in line with the Woodtiger proposal.
“There have been too many years of this organization funding a litigation strategy,” he said, referring to unresolved lawsuits over the bridge. “They are a savvy group. PennDOT’s plan is a bird in the hand. To go with individuals who have been delaying this process for so long is crazy.”
Resident Tim Cashman pleaded, “Let’s put the brakes on this. You can talk all you want, but where is the bridge design? It’s not even on the drafting table. We have a full schedule from PennDOT, but we’re not being given full disclosure on their proposed plans by the board. We need to let PennDOT continue to do what they are doing.”
Chair Eleanor Breslin vehemently denied the non-disclosure accusation, with Township Solicitor Scott Holbert concurring.
She added that PennDOT has asked the township for a decision from the board by April 24.
“Right now, their bids are going out as if they anticipate notice to proceed with their plans,” Breslin said. “Some in our community accept PennDOT’s timeline as fact. However in reality it is simply aspirational, not necessarily what will happen.”
One resident read from an email sent out by PennDOT’s Ryan Whittington to Supervisor Richard Rosamilia and select Tinicum residents, characterizing as endless the permitting required should the rehabilitated bridge plan move forward. Neither supervisors Breslin and John Cole nor Solicitor Holbert were copied on the email and they said they didn’t see it before the meeting. Also not copied on the email was township engineer Curt Genner, of Wynn Associates Inc.
Cole expressed dismay at some reactions to the proposal.
“PennDOT will stay on their schedule, as (there) are no guarantees there will not be another lawsuit,” Cole said. “However, we have an offer in hand to rehabilitate this bridge, a feasible solution to heal a festering wound haunting our community. Let us explore the Woodtiger proposal and try to answer the questions you’re raising as well.”
Rosamilia suggested organizing a referendum (a direct vote by the electorate on a select proposal) whether to take back the bridge or go with the PennDOT proposal.
“I’m not an election attorney, but you cannot call a referendum for just any issue,” Holbert responded. “There are special circumstances and categories under which such a case could be called.”
Dueling comments from residents and at least one impassioned plea for community collaboration pushed Tuesday’s meeting past the three-hour mark. It ended abruptly when it was deemed enough public comment had been heard.
Reached afterward for comment, Breslin told the Herald the supervisors set a special business meeting for Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. The Headquarters Road bridge will be the only item on the agenda and all involved stakeholders would be invited.
“Over the next two weeks, the township will continue its due diligence, so that it has all the information it will need to decide whether to accept the offer of private funding to pay for the historic rehabilitation and maintenance fund for the HQRB,” Breslin said.
The meeting location has yet to be determined but resident would be able to attend via Zoom. Residents wanting to comment, however, would need to attend in person.