PennDot is gearing up to rebuild Bucks County's oldest bridge, and the people of Newtown Borough and Township say they are being railroaded.
At stake is the historical significance and character of the two-lane, stone-arch Centre Avenue Bridge, built in 1796, that connects the two communities. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the fourth-oldest span in the state and one of the oldest structures in the country.
"PennDot is a train rolling down the tracks. Before it picks up too much speed, we need to bring it to a halt," local lawyer and civic leader Mike Sellers said at a public meeting Wednesday to save the bridge. "We need a time-out to determine, 'Do we really need to do this?' "
The bridge over Newtown Creek is in poor condition and needs to be brought up to 21st-century standards to last 50 to 75 more years, Chuck Davis, PennDot's assistant district director of design, said Thursday. The work is scheduled to be put out for bid this spring, with construction any time in the next two years.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's design calls for the stone walls to be dismantled and replaced with concrete. As many of the stones as possible will be used in the walls' façade, but they won't be returned to their original positions and may be cut or sliced, Davis said.
Additional stone will be supplied by local quarries, he said.
The plans have been approved by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, Davis said, and the bridge's appearance will not be altered and its listing on the National Register will not be affected.
But many of the 30 or so leaders and residents at the meeting said the work will destroy their historic bridge forever and snarl traffic in the two business districts for four months. And they expressed frustration that PennDot has not documented the need for a newer, stronger bridge.
"You can't remove the stones and the mortar and keep the history," said Larry Fink, an architect and former chairman of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission.
The bridge is in the historic district that dates to 1682, when William Penn bought a large tract from the Lenni Lenape and established a 40-acre common. It was built with money from the sale of lots in the common, and it inspired folk artist Edward Hicks in the early 1800s.
Fink and local leaders said they had requested but had not seen PennDot's assessment of the 11-foot-wide, 24-foot-long bridge.
"You couldn't do anything with the foundation of the bridge without tearing down" the neighboring McMasters House, which was built in 1832, Fink said.
PennDot will send its assessment to those who made right-to-know requests, Davis said.
Fink also disputed PennDot's position that the bridge is unsafe.
There have been five accidents, none serious, in the last five years on the bridge, he said. PennDot puts the average use at fewer than 8,000 vehicles a day, and Fink said the average speed is about 20 m.p.h., with traffic often slowing to a crawl between State and Sycamore Streets, the two main business arteries.
Since there is no posted weight limit, trucks of all sizes, including 18-wheel tractor-trailers, use the bridge, which was widened in 1875.
The bridge needs to be strong enough to withstand a car crash, Davis said.
Wednesday's meeting was conducted by the Newtown Creek Coalition, the Newtown Historic Association, and the First National Bank & Trust of Newtown. PennDot officials could not attend but will receive an official transcript, said Sellers, president of the coalition.
PennDot conducted a "consulting parties" meeting Feb. 8, but few answers were provided, said Milissa Lenahan, a vice president at the bank.
"They tried to make us believe it wasn't structurally sound, but they couldn't really support it," Lenahan said.
"The longer I sat in that building, the more I felt bullied," she said. "We're going to get two weeks' notice, and then the bridge is going to be gone. It needs to be stopped."
The three groups quickly hired a consultant who is familiar with federal regulations designed to protect historic properties. Federal funds will pay 80 percent of the estimated $750,000 cost, with the state paying the balance.
Fink, who has restored a 300-year-old house, said the bridge could be strengthened by removing built-up layers of pavement and filling cavities with lightweight concrete.
"It would be maintenance-free, almost forever," the architect said.
State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks) said Thursday that he was trying to get PennDot officials, civic leaders, and residents together to tell them, "Any work will have to respect the historical integrity of the bridge."
"PennDot needs to listen to the community."
Newtown architect Larry Fink discusses the history of Centre Avenue Bridge, the oldest span in Bucks County, at www.philly.com/centreave