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Obstacles Delay Bridge Opening 60 Years

Thursday, December 3, 2015

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Drivers in eastern Pennsylvania waited nearly six decades through a series of setbacks to have a bridge that crossed the Lehigh River and connected a former rust belt city with a coast-to-coast highway.

More than a half-century after it was first conceived, the $36 million American Parkway Lehigh River Bridge opened just before Thanksgiving, according to The Morning Call in Allentown. It joins downtown with U.S. Route 22 and is seen as important to redevelopment on the city’s east side.

“This bridge may have taken more than 50 years…but make no mistake; we are on the move, and our improvements are going to re-establish Allentown as the center of this region for decades and decades to come,” Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski told crowd of local, state and federal officials who were on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Overcoming Setbacks

It’s also a bridge that has received national attention. Early in November, Roads & Bridges magazine named it the No. 4 Bridge in North America. The publication acknowledged the challenges—and related resolutions—that designer Gannett Fleming and prime contractor New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co. Inc. faced in completing the project.

City of Allentown

The American Parkway Lehigh River Bridge was proposed in the 1950s and has hit a series of roadblocks since. It was finally opened in November.

The biggest obstacle? A layer of dolomite bedrock, known as the Allentown Formation, is the underbelly of the Lehigh River.

“This formation of bedrock has pinnacles in it,” Scott Rhine, national design-build leader and transportation director at Gannett Fleming, told Roads & Bridges. “So we looked at doing spread footings in the river and we thought that would work.”

Piers 1 and 2 created most of the problems, the publication noted. They had to be redesigned at different lengths so that they wouldn’t get caught in the bedrock’s pinnacles during the spread-footing process.

In an extremely tight working environment created by the river, a railroad and other surrounding roads, construction work got complicated again when workers tried to install the bridge’s spans.

When workers tried to place Span 2, they found the causeway did not extend far enough to use two cranes and set the 141-ft-long, 8-ft-deep concrete beams in place, Roads & Bridges noted. Crews built the four other spans first and used a skid beam set to build Span 2.

Two cranes then picked up beams from the causeway between Abutment 1 and Pier 1 and set them on the skid beam, the publication noted. A 500-ton crane, sitting on Span 3, assisted one of the cranes on the causeway to set the five beams per span into place.

Storm water was another issue because it could not drain directly into the river. A pipe along the entire length of the 1,300-foot bridge provided the solution, Roads & Bridges said.

By Jmarquette / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

After Allentown acquired land in the 1980s, the federally funded project hit issues with land rights; funding shortages; design; environmental studies; and uncooperative bedrock.

But the actual bridge construction—which didn’t start until 2012—is only part of the setback story.

The Morning Call reported that the idea to connect what was then the center of a thriving industrial city with the region’s new “superhighway” was conceived in the 1950s. A spur between downtown and Route 22 was first included among regional plans in 1968. Amid controversy, Allentown then purchased land for the road in the 1980s.

Construction was supposed to be complete by 1990. Battles over land rights; slow-moving design and environmental studies; and funding shortages pushed that date back 25 years, the daily paper reported.

Future Use

The bridge, which was built primarily with federal money, is eventually expected to handle 30,000 cars a day. Craig Messinger, Allentown's interim director of public works, told The Morning Call that it should provide relief for other congested city streets.

It also will provide an alternate to Route 22 as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation works on a five-year, road-widening project.

“This didn’t just happen at the right time for the city,” Messinger told the daily paper. “It happened at the right time for PennDOT.”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Government; Government contracts; North America; Program/Project Management; Roads/Highways

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