By Ruby Brinkerhoff
Sometimes an old bridge is just that. An old bridge. Nothing much to talk about, often beneath our feet and our wheels, but rarely the object of direct attention, let alone debate. Tucked away in the Delaware Valley, nestled between two sides of the Delaware River, the Milanville Bridge has connected New York and Pennsylvania since its original construction date in 1902. As people take up aging infrastructure as a national conversation with increasing urgency, the conversation gains a great amount of relevance in local contexts. Examples of aging infrastructure, no matter how seemingly small, demonstrate the impact infrastructure decisions have on communities and how a small-town bridge can become symbolic in ways far superseding simply getting from point A to point B.
Milanville, Pennsylvania, part of Damascus Township, is a small village with about 600 residents. There is one general store with an attached post office and narrow, winding roads that cut into the hills and along the river, twisting along the embankments and through the countryside as if they were streams themselves carrying us back and forth from our destinations. The Milanville Bridge, also known as the Skinner’s Falls Bridge, is one of several bridges spaced out along the river, serving the local population and the considerable number of tourists that flock to the area every year to escape New York City, enjoy the countryside, and use the river recreationally. One of the most popular swimming spots, known as Skinner’s Falls, lies just downstream from the Skinner’s Falls bridge. This destination becomes relevant to the conversation in two ways: what happens upstream affects what happens downstream, and as with all bridges, we want to know where they lead to.
The Milanville Bridge, beyond its own historical significance, connects people to the economic vitality of Milanville. The Upper Delaware River corridor once built its economy on the extraction and transportation of coal and timber and felt a brief kiss of death with propositions for natural gas drilling in the area. Times have changed: the river itself is now the economic resource. The area increasingly caters to the tourist economy, with renewed interest from New Yorkers leaving the city at the advent of COVID-19. The river, and subsequently Skinner’s Falls, is a recreational money-making powerhouse, attracting many people to the natural scenic beauty and the glories of a well preserved, “clean” river (we won’t talk about the recent micro-plastic studies here).
The bridge, though intact, remains closed to traffic. Over the past ten years, the bridge has undergone some emergency repairs, reopened for periods of time, but would quickly close again with “in critical condition” branded onto it without remission. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) began a Planning and Environmental Linkages Study, which is “used to identify transportation issues and environmental concerns, which can then be applied to make planning decisions,” also known as a survey and a comment period. Used as a tool to address processes required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Linkages Study intends to look at how the bridge is used and what the needs of the local community are before fully developing a process and plan of action for the bridge.
The Environmental Linkages study commenced with a rather, shall we say, passionate town meeting. PennDOT hired AECOM, a private consulting firm, to conduct the studies and planning necessary for the Skinner’s Falls Bridge Project, which they have been dutiful to attempt. The town meeting revealed three choices: decommission the bridge; restore the bridge to its historical integrity as a one lane, Baltimore through Truss style by repairing the super and substructure; or replace the bridge with a brand-new two-lane bridge, graded for 40 tons, accommodating the weight of vehicles such as full-size fire trucks, tracker trailers, construction vehicles, and dump trucks.
Approaching this community with AECOM’s version of “a collaborative and integrated planning approach” quickly became tinder for activism around saving the bridge. It is easy and at times justified to feel that the community engagement techniques used for projects like this drip of tokenism (in reference to Arnstein’s ladder for planning folks). AECOM’s invitation to become an “advisor” to the planning committee appeared to fall short of desiring real input from community members. The survey and the comment period were good starting points, but many people felt the comment period was too short and the survey was lacking.
Concerning the options presented by PennDOT, decommission the bridge you say? How hopeless! Expand the bridge to a two-lane bridge weighted for commercial traffic? There is a joke in Pennsylvania, taken very much at PennDOT’s expense: If you are driving straight on a PA road, you are definitely drunk. The roads on either side of this bridge run through Historic Districts, are winding with sharp turns and patches sloping down towards the creek embankments. The roads simply are not graded for increased traffic across a two-lane bridge. The tourist destination downstream of the bridge hosts a patch of rapids that could very easily be disturbed by increased construction and displacement of water and materials upstream.
Beyond the practical considerations of engineering and feasibility, what do we want the bridge to symbolize? What do we want the bridge to do? The community is known for its activism and eventual victory over the proposal of natural gas drilling in the area. People are extremely protective of the Delaware River, which is not only significant economically, but ecologically and as the watershed for New York City’s drinking water. AECOM walked into the front door of a quiet town in the sticks with a survey in hand, perhaps thinking it would appease the requirements for community engagement without too much of an issue, yet they found internationally acclaimed environmental activists sitting at the table demanding a deeper and more critical conversation about the impact these decisions can have on community vitality and morale.
The comment period that was originally scheduled to end in May was extended to June at the urgent request of many community members. Local newspapers published articles, a local organization known for its role in the Anti-Fracking movement came forward and created new community engagement opportunities, providing people with updated information and ways to get involved. The community conversation seemed to come back to the idea that we are talking about more than just a piece of infrastructure. We are discussing the present and future of how we create vibrant rural and regional areas. The Northeastern corner of Pennsylvania and sections of New York across the river have always served as important natural corridors and respite from the city. In planning, we often discuss the metastasizing of cities, the urban sprawl which has crawled into our laps as one of planning’s most pressing issues. The Milanville Bridge, with its unassuming stature, has renewed the dialogue about preservation for many people in the area. What is worth preserving and what will we choose to alter in pursuit of growth, or opportunity, or economic development? Who gets to make that decision, and how do you ensure the inclusion of local voices, especially in areas that are often spoken about as if “no-one lives here”?
Survey results are in from AECOM. 286 people responded to the survey with additional numbers of comments sent separately to AECOM via email. AECOM’s report implies that many people who left comments via the survey noted rehabilitation of the bridge as a theme, as well as the importance of the bridge as a nationally registered historic place. The future of the bridge relies heavily on funding and what meets the bottom line of infrastructure needs. However, as the national conversation around aging infrastructure continues to unfold, deciding the future of the Milanville Bridge is a touchstone issue to examine.
Ruby is a rising second year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Ruby specializes in land use and environmental planning, with a sustained interest in food systems, climate change, and equitable access to resources. Ruby received a dual bachelor’s degree from Guilford College in Biology and Religious Studies. She loves playing music, exploring North Carolina, and owning a lot of books that she never reads.
Edited by: Elijah Gullett
Featured Image courtesy of: Owen Walsh, The River Reporter, 2020