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Tinicum rebuffs PennDOT, takes back Headquarters Road bridge

Faced with two competing visions for the long-closed span, supervisors made their choice Tuesday


Following a long and contentious special meeting Tuesday, Tinicum supervisors resolved to pursue a legally binding agreement with the Woodtiger Fund to privately cover the cost of rehabilitating Headquarters Road Bridge.

The bridge would be owned by the township and maintained via an escrow fund fed by the nonprofit.

Tuesday’s meeting, held at the Delaware Valley Volunteer Fire Department due to capacity issues, included two representatives of PennDOT — Chuck Davies (responsible for transportation and engineering) and Ryan Whittington (longtime consultant on the HQRB project) — who defended the state’s two-lane, new bridge proposal.

They claimed there were no lawsuits preventing PennDOT from moving forward and that they had renewable active waterway permits and an engineering team in place to start construction in July.

Township Engineer Curt Jenner sparred with Whittington on rehabilitation versus reconstruction. PennDOT insisted the superstructure of the bridge was completely shot, requiring full removal and replacement. Jenner disagreed, stating “not every piece of structure will be removed under our plan; some will be repaired, some will be replaced.”

When the conversation turned to permitting requirements, Tinicum Supervisor Eleanor Breslin, who chairs the board, said “a contractor will be required to provide guidance on Department of Interior standards for rehabilitation to keep this circa 1812 bridge historic. We will retain what we can and replace what we cannot in kind.”

The PennDOT officials laid out a timeline to pursue their replacement plans, which pretty much matched that of the privately funded rehab proposal, per Jenner.

Tinicum Supervisor John Cole asked the PennDOT representatives if they “had any fundamental opposition to Tinicum taking over the bridge.”

Whittington stated he had no problem with a “turnback agreement” but they would need to be notified before they began advertising for contractor bids in April.

Woodtiger Executive Director Damon Aherne explained how the private payment plan would work, with no expense borne by the township.

“Historical giving is a part of our nonprofit work. As there is no known final cost yet, we will start off with a $1 million fund, adding an additional $500,000 every 60 days until the entirety of the project is funded.”

Supervisor Richard Rosamilia voiced concerns over land access agreements — landowner Steve Gidumal has signed off on a legal access agreement — and wanted specifics about the Woodtiger escrow maintenance plan. He also asked if there was an “upper limit Woodtiger will fund” should the project run over budget estimates.

Jenner stated his $2-million working estimate was based on full bridge replacement of spans that were similar in size.

Rosamilia asked Solicitor Scott Holbert if the township would be protected from lawsuits. Holbert provided assurances that the executive summary describes legally binding payment schedules in detail, including an extra cushion if needed.

Breslin pointed out that it was “sound fiscal management the board has put into considering this motion in order to retain a significant part of our historic community spanning Tinicum Creek.”

She added that, “It is time to remove the burden of the Headquarters Bridge closure from our community once and for all.”

Some residents were adamant that the Woodtiger contract was being prematurely accepted, and the board would be acting in an irresponsible manner if they chose to enter into an agreement without a design plan, tangible drawings, or contractors in place. Additional fears of a Woodtiger default, lower-than-actual cost estimates, new lawsuits between the partners and levels of project insurance were aired.

On the other hand, resident Dave Handy railed against what he characterized as long-running negligence by PennDOT.

Others stated that entrusting a new bridge to PennDOT was tantamount to “dancing with the devil as opposed to accepting a gift from God.”

Palisades Regional Fire Rescue Chief Bill Schick recalled the circumstances of the bridge closing. “It was a fire truck that took the bridge out. Whether it is one lane or two, a new bridge must be wide enough for a larger truck’s turning radius.”

Longtime resident Valli Baldassano passionately questioned Woodtiger’s motives.

“Why did they spend 12 years spending money on litigation when they could have rebuilt this bridge long ago?,” she asked rhetorically. “You are giving the keys to the hen house over to the fox and it stinks to high heaven.”

She also claimed she did not care whether the bridge remained one lane or two, but “the bridge got destroyed by big trucks. What is going to prevent that from happening all over again?”

Some concerns revolved around Tinicum’s bridge ownership responsibilities being irreversible.

“If you take this project away from PennDOT, there may well never be a bridge” one resident said. “With PennDOT, it is a guarantee there will be a bridge.”

Historian Kathy Aucherbach welcomed the heated discourse on ways to reinforce and strengthen the Woodtiger funding contract, and countered concerns about Tinicum’s ownership of the bridge.

“Owning bridges is nothing new here, Tinicum already owns many bridges,” she said. “It is unusual, but so is the historical Tinicum Township.”

She also stressed upsides of preserving the bridge and retaining control of its maintenance. “We have something in hand here, to receive a gift and pass on our natural and historic resources.”

As the meeting passed the three-hour mark, Rosamilia reiterated concerns that there were no plans in place to ascertain real costs such as insurance and performance bonds.

“After the bridge is up and a failure occurs, there is nothing in here to cover replacement without a time-consuming lawsuit,” he said.

He added that the Woodtiger fund can’t “simply provide a blank check — there are performance obligations and strict guidelines they must follow.”

He called for additional more penalties in the contract.

“There is so much they can get away with,” he closed.

Cole said the resolution allows the process to proceed only if they meet all conditions in the agreement.

“This plan gives us permission to tell The Woodtiger Fund it is okay to proceed, but also maintains our opportunity to say no,” said Cole. “This is a risky situation, but as a resident, not only a supervisor, it is also a risk worth taking. PennDOT is not interested in preserving our cultural heritage and each time we lose something historical, it depletes what makes us special. We are faced with either trusting PennDOT or trusting Woodtiger. As this is the fourth major bridge controversy I have worked through in my long Tinicum career, I have learned we cannot trust PennDOT.”

Breslin then closed the meeting with her remarks.

“This is not like we’re building something new,” she said. “We are planning on rebuilding something with historical accuracy. Engineer Jenner has shown us photos of existing and in-kind rehabilitations to show how to replace what is there.”

She acknowledged the many voices from both sides, the skepticism and unease as well as the sense of relief that a resolution is near.

“The board has engaged in more substantive discussions on this issue in just this past year than it has over the last 13 years. PennDOT’s timeline is not reliable and, based on history, we will have no way to avoid more PennDOT delays. From the past 13 years, we know all too well where the PennDOT path takes us — back to square one.”

She called it “an extraordinary proposal; one we will be proud of for generations to come.”

Rehabilitating the current bridge “supports the character of our community and we remain satisfied with the Woodtiger offer, one that will save Tinicum taxpayers money in perpetuity with purely private funds.”

Breslin and Cole voting for the Woodtiger arrangement and Rosamilia against, allowing the resolution to move forward after 13 years of turmoil.

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