Potential coalition trying to stop new Scudder Falls toll bridge NJ/PA I-95 - DRJTBC's biggest project

May 23, 2012
By Peter Samuel

2012-05-21: Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC) is facing some late opposition to its plan to rebuild its Scudder Falls I-95 bridge with tolls. A presently small coalition of a fiscal conservatives and an environmentalist, a Republican Senator and a liberal Democrat senator last week called on the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to block the project.

A minority member of the ten person DRJTB Commission, Ed Smith, a Christie appointee was part of the group who announced their plans to try stop the project May 17. It is unclear whether they'll gain significant support.

The opposition is New Jersey-based and the appeal is mainly to NJ Governor Chris Christie who has already used his power to "veto minutes" of other state agencies to control them.

DRJTBC has been working for over a decade to get environmental approvals and financing to allow the 50 year old tight 4-lane bridge to be replaced by a new twin span 6 through-lanes bridge with auxiliary lanes.

Studies that have been going on seriously since 2005 produced a 561 page environmental assessment in December 2009 and public hearings. These generated some local news notably around issues of traffic diversion from the tolled bridge to free bridges and the initial lack of any provision for pedestrians and bicyclists.  In response the DRJTBC did a further supplemental study of 309 pages and more public hearings December last year.

The project has been featured on the DRJTBC website and in other reports and they have had a special website for the project going for several years with project news, documents, and presentations.

The project was also in the news in August 2010 when the governors of New Jersey (Gov Chris Christie) and Pennsylvania (Ed Rendell) said they were directing DRJTBC to pursue the Scudder bridge project as a public private partnership.

Put 'scudder' and 'bridge' in a Google search box any time in the past five or six years and it has generated a torrent of references and links to the project in a second or two.

Behind "closed doors" this toll plan is being "hatched"

But the almost continuous appearance of the project in the news did not stop New Jersey Republican state senator Michael Doherty from accusing the DRJTBC last week of secretly "hatching" the plan, making decisions behind closed doors and charging there hadn't been the required public disclosure. He wanted to "alert the public" he told the press last week because "I don't think the public is aware of this."

Doherty comes from the far north of the state where perhaps this is true. But in Trenton and the surrounding area you'd have to be a recluse not be aware of it.

Senator Doherty's other objection to the DRJTBC plan was that an engineering study in 2010 said the bridge was "capable of safely supporting all legal loads."

Breezily he declared: "So according to this engineering study this bridge is good to go and there is no reason to take it down."

In fact the engineers and DRJTBC Environmental Assessment both said the bridge is currently structurally safe but its design has no redundancy in the structure. Given its age it could develop single point vulnerabilities in the future. But the major safety problems of the bridge are the lack of breakdown shoulders and the sudden merge required by riverside interchange ramps.

Functional obsolescence

This is what the engineers term functional obsolescence rather than structural obsolescence.

The alternatives analysis rejected keeping the old bridge on account of its old fashioned non-redundant design and difficulties in integrating it into a new structure.

Jeff Tittel head of the New Jersey Sierra Club said federal money could have funded improvements but that the DRJTBC was determined to avoid the scrutiny of driving piles in a floodplain that goes with a full environmental impact assessment.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opens its new interchange with I-95 traffic on the highway to the north and over the Delaware River at the Scudder bridge will decline and it will be "underutilized" he said.

From the north Star Ledger calls this part of Jersey "nowhere"

Tittel provoked a polemical report by Paul Mulshine in the Newark Star Ledger calling the Scudder bridge "A toll bridge to nowhere."

There are currently a lot of people using the Scudder, all to go "nowhere" it seems - in 2011 average daily traffic of 57,500 making it DRJTBC's second most trafficked bridge after I-78 60,100 and ahead of the US-1 toll bridge in downtown Trenton 53,500 and the I-80 Delaware Water Gap toll bridge at 51,800.

Of course the toll on Scudder plus the Pennsylvania Turnpike/I-95 interchange and its better connection to the New Jersey Turnpike Pearl Harbor Extension will attract some traffic away from the Scudder, although the traffic studies suggest rather little loss.

Improvements to the bridge, widening of the highway with third lanes on several miles either side of the river and rebuilding four interchanges will make this belt route around the Trenton area route more attractive to use for most trips and worth the modest proposed $2 toll.

Local senator Turner worries about diversion to free bridges

Local state senator Shirley Turner (Democrat Trenton) was most concerned about diversion to the free bridges and how this would worsen their existing congested condition. She was referring to the Trenton Makes or Lower Trenton bridge next to the US-1 toll bridge and the Calhoun Street Bridge a couple of miles further upriver. These are historic 2-lane bridges with 8ft and 10ft overhead clearance through their trusses, a 3 ton weight limit and 15mph speeds. They each carry 16k cars/day - very local trips.

The Scudder has the signs saying I-95, signs which will be transferred to the Pearl Harbor Extension route when the interchange is finally built. Supposed to be continued northeast some 30 miles to New Brunswick it is now a tag end as a long distance interstate route. Rather it is a busy regional and commuter road linking central New Jersey and the Trenton area to the far northern parts of the Philadelphia area.

Another member of the coalition of critics was Steve Lonnigan head of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a group sometimes associated with the Tea Party movement.

"(L)eave it to the government to destroy a perfectly good bridge and incur almost $400m in new debt and make motorists pay tolls and call that economic growth. We can't afford any more of this kind of economic growth in the state of New Jersey....we see the consequences in the state's economy and massive job losses. It is destroying the our state."

Lonnigan said he'd been fighting growing debt and runaway spending by state agencies for 12 years during which time state debt had grown almost six fold to $50b.

"At Americans for Prosperity we are going to urge Gov Christie to use his ability to veto the minutes of the Delaware River Port Authority (he misspoke here obviously meaning DRJTBC) to stop this project, as well as Governor Corbett in Pennsylvania. Both these Republican governors have the ability to demonstrate fiscal responsibility and that they are fiscal conservatives by putting an end to the runaway borrowing."

DRJTBC commissioner Ed Smith appointed last July said he'd been amazed at the "excesses" of the Scudder bridge project and had made suggestions to reduce its costs significantly but  all his suggestions had been "dismissed."

DRJTBC response


Frank McCartney executive director of the DRJTBC put out a statement:

"All of the traffic studies, all of the delays that job commuters encounter daily along this highway segment, and all of the accident records at this location do not support the assertions that were made today by a group of individuals who seldom - if ever - have an occasion to use this bridge.

"It's very disheartening that some people would put the lives and safety of motorists at risk by pursuing a political agenda with respect to this project.

"The notion that a change in highway designation numbers will magically bring about less traffic congestion is not only unsupported by any data or study, it's preposterous. This bridge already struggles to carry peak-period traffic demand, with a daily average of 57,500 vehicles last year. Studies show those numbers will increase by roughly 30 percent to 76,500 vehicles a day in 2030 and the change in highway designation numbers is already figured into that projection.

"The reported 27 minutes a day that is lost by current job commuters who use this bridge will only worsen if the existing bridge, adjoining 'kamikaze' interchanges and problematic highway geometry continues to remain unaddressed.

"The I-95/Scudder Falls Bridge Improvement Project is a comprehensive approach to a problem that goes beyond the existing functionally obsolete bridge. It also includes complete reconstruction of the dysfunctional Route 29/I-95 interchange, realignment of the inefficient Taylorsville Road/I-95 interchange in Pennsylvania, and widening of the I-95 roadway where needed. In fact, only 45 percent of the project's cost is for the replacement bridge.

"In light of the absence of other means to pay for the project, it is the Commission's position that users of the completed bridge/interchange/highway facility should help pay the project's costs.

"The Commission has worked in a responsible and deliberative fashion on this project over the course of the previous decade. There were five stakeholder meetings, 10 public open houses, four presentations with area business groups, four coordination meetings with environmental regulatory agencies, and four meetings with transportation planning agencies. Three public hearings also took place on the project's environmental documentation and one of those hearings was specifically dedicated to the issue of tolling the replacement bridge - a decision that was reached and announced over two years ago.

"We are moving forward with this project with all due dispatch while meeting all regulatory and environmental safeguards. Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents need a transportation network that meets tomorrow's needs, not one that struggles to keep up with yesterday's demands -- and that is what we are going to continue to pursue."

COMMENT: Most of the criticisms of the DRJTBC project are unjustified, some are absurd. Unjustified is calling the project wasteful if it offers the prospect of earning sufficient in tolls to pays for itself. Debt on behalf of a project where the value of benefits as reflected in voluntarily paid tolls exceed costs is sustainable and fully justified.

Absurd too is the notion that the Feds would have funded the improvements. And with environmental studies heading toward a thousand pages and multiple rounds of public hearings it is preposterous to suggest that the Commission has been avoiding environmental scrutiny.

Assinine is the suggestion that the Scudder is "a bridge to nowhere." A corridor currently carrying an average of nearly 60,000 vehicles a day is absolutely not going "nowhere." This is a major route between the Philadelphia area and central New Jersey in what is often regarded as sufficiently densely populated to be considered one continuous metropolis.

As to capacity 4 lanes is usually thought to be sufficient for an average daily 50,000 vehicles. So widening this section of highway and the bridge to 6 travel lanes is needed if you believe there will be any traffic growth, and probably justified by present traffic. You have to argue traffic will fall significantly to say that 4 lanes is sufficient.

And auxiliary lanes are needed on the Scudder bridge to safely and efficiently deal with the interchange ramps close by the ends of the bridge. The Sierra Club's guy claims the problem could be solved by moving the ramps away from the bridge - feasible perhaps in the Sierras country out west but thoroughly impractical here.  The US1 toll bridge downriver in Trenton with similar traffic volume has an auxiliary lane each direction - 2x3 lanes on the bridge itself with US1 being 2x2 through lanes.

So auxiliary lanes are not "excess."

Shoulder each side of each roadway is standard practice in new expressways and to some extent mandated by the Feds.

But - and here we need to concede a bit to the critics - adding all that up plus a pedestrian bicycle lane does make for an enormous bridge deck.

Instead of 4 lanes and a deck of 56ft you are building 6 travel lanes (72ft), 3 auxiliary lanes (36ft), four shoulders (52ft) and the pedestrian/bike lane (10ft) or about 170ft total in twin spans of about 85ft width each. The new bridge is three times the old!

And another concession to critics - you need to be skeptical about the projected 30% growth of daily traffic to 76k that is used as the basis for specifying the new two span bridge at 9 lanes. It's possible but highly uncertain.

So we say: the Commission should complete the permitting and planning for the full fledged 9 lanes in two new spans. It would be a mistake to go back on the current 9 lane plan, especially given the vast study and permitting investment now made. But the Commission doesn't have to commit to fund and build it all now. It can stage the implementation of the project, we suggest.

A more prudent approach would be to build the southbound span as planned with an 85ft wide deck providing the single auxiliary lane, the three through lanes and catering to the pedestrians and cyclists and having full shoulders in line with modern practice, but to convert the existing span to northbound traffic rather than replace it - for now anyway.

The 56ft of the existing span with the central barrier removed can provide four good travel lanes - either three through lanes and one auxiliary or two through and two auxiliary lanes.

True there wouldn't be much shoulder, just 4ft margin on either side.

If and when traffic does grow, or the existing 1961 span starts to show structural problems, you'd move to replace it with the second new span with its wider deck for the extra lane and shoulders.

But meanwhile you'd save about 20% of project cost of $350m or $70m upfront, and you'd reassure the fiscal conservatives you weren't prematurely trashing a bridge that is indeed safe-for-now.

And why not as the two governors asked back in 2010 see what a P3 RFP would produce by way of proposals. They might offer a good deal on a phased approach or do the whole job for less. Or come up with other ideas.

press conference led by Senator Michael Doherty (Repub, 23):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBx_2M32LQc&feature=youtu.be&hd=1

http://www.drjtbc.org/

project site:

http://scudderfallsbridge.com/

NOTE: the Commission official says $2.00 for cars is not a toll they are formally commited to. He thinks there may also be legal problems in tolling northbound on the existing span as we suggest for an interim solution of indefinite duration.

TOLLROADSnews 2012-05-22


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