Tolls coming to one of last free Delaware River bridges

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell looks over a schematic of the proposed changes to the Scudder falls Bridge on I-95.(Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

One of the last major toll-free crossings on the Delaware River will soon be history.

That's the bad news for commuters who use the four-lane Scudder Falls Bridge along I-95, near Yardley on the Pennsylvania side and West Trenton on the New Jersey side.

The good news - announced Friday by Gov. Rendell - is that an estimated $310 million in private money will be invested to make the span safer, wider, and free of its regular morning traffic jams.

The governor, speaking from under a tent at an I-95 rest stop near the bridge in Bucks County, said that he and Gov. Christie had agreed to lease the bridge to a for-profit enterprise that would then charge tolls to recoup the cost of reconstruction and maintenance.

With the support of both governors, the proposal should be a done deal politically. Rendell said that he and Christie were both urging the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which owns the bridge, to call an August meeting to appoint a legal team to get working on the project.

No developer has been selected. The job will be put out for bids, and is expected to be completed by late 2012 or early 2013.

Rendell said that neither state right now could afford the cost of redoing the 50-year-old, 1,740-foot bridge.

"We simply don't have the money," Rendell said. "So what are we going to do?"

The cost of rebuilding the span is estimated at $132 million. The remainder will be for redoing the interchanges at each end and widening I-95 to three lanes in each direction on the Pennsylvania side.

Rendell, who stood with officials from both states, seemed proud of the plan. He termed it the first bistate public-private partnership of its kind in the country.

He earlier wanted to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private outfit from Spain, but that plan fell through.

He said the bridge rebuilding could be done cheaper and faster by a company than by government. The cost to the public will be a $1 to $2 toll for cars, paid southbound only.

No toll booths will be set up. Electronic equipment will record the license plate of each vehicle and automatically bill the owner. Officials said drivers with an E-ZPass transponder might get a discount.

Each morning, Pennsylvania drivers heading north to New Jersey spend an average of 27 minutes sitting in the backup at the bridge, Rendell said. Almost 60,000 cars use the bridge per day.

Although another official later disagreed with him, Rendell called the bridge "not safe."

It is of the same type as the Manius River Bridge in Greenwich, Conn., that collapsed in 1983, killing three people.

The new crossing will have safety features to catch the bridge if any of its supports fails.

Frank McCartney, executive director of the commission, said the current span is safe - but the new span will be "safer."

Excited by the Rendell announcement, he said, "This is even bigger than Roy Oswalt coming to the Phillies."

James Simpson, the transportation commissioner for New Jersey, said Rendell and Christie were "on the same page" in believing that a public-private partnership was the only way to get the project done in a time of tightening state budgets.

He emphasized that the public would retain ownership of the bridge while turning it over to private operation.

"Those of you who are afraid of us selling public assets, we are not selling the bridge," he said.

The bridge will have three lanes, instead of two, in each direction. It will have auxiliary lanes and wider shoulders, to keep traffic flowing when maintenance work is under way or an accident occurs.

A bicycle lane will be behind a barrier along the north side of the bridge.

Trucks likely would be charged a toll based on $4 per axle, Rendell said.

Twenty-eight vehicular bridges cross the Delaware between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Fifteen - including the four major spans operated by the Delaware River Port Authority - carry tolls, officials said.

Except for the Scudder Falls Bridge, the toll-free spans are mostly small and for local traffic.

 


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.