Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Down by the River: Bridge it and they will come

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

You might say that Harrisburg suffers from an embarrassment of bridge riches.

Six spans cross the Susquehanna River over about a mile, some so close that you might be able to fling a whoopie pie between them.

Some are majestic, crafted of iron or stone, from a time when design and beauty meant something. Others are steel, flat and utilitarian, from a time when it didn’t.

There are vehicle, train and pedestrian bridges. There are active and inactive bridges. Among Harrisburg’s many bridges, there’s something for every taste, style and function.

But there are problems, too. Big ones. In fact, nearly every bridge across the Susquehanna suffers from one major flaw or another.

Now, thanks to the federal infrastructure bill, there’s money to address some of these problems, many longstanding. The regional planning group, the Harrisburg Area Transportation Study (HATS), recently said that its project budget would increase by about one-third, or by about $25 million per year over the next four years, because of the law.

That’s a lot of money. Unfortunately, it’s still not enough to fix everything, especially when you consider that these funds need to be spread out among many road, bridge and multimodal projects. HATS has 153 projects on its to-do list from 2023-26, so choices need to be made.

In my opinion, HATS is making some good ones.

Over the next five years, the immediate Harrisburg area should be buzzing with road and bridge work. Some of these projects fall into the category of deferred or badly needed maintenance, while others will bring significant changes and improvements.

I’m personally looking forward to the “Capital Gateway” project, which will re-design and slim down Forster Street between the Taylor Bridge and N. 2nd Street in Harrisburg for better bike and pedestrian use. Construction, originally set for this year, has been pushed up to 2023.

When it comes to the Susquehanna bridges, I’m generally positive about the plans.

Here, I’m referring to the three, century-plus-old bridges in the middle of Harrisburg’s bridge bounty: the iron-truss, ped/bike Walnut Street Bridge, the stone-arched, auto-centric Market Street Bridge and the long-dormant, concrete-arched CAT (Cumberland Valley Railroad) Bridge.

Starting downriver, the CAT Bridge is perhaps the most exciting project. Armed with new federal infrastructure money, HATS moved this $22.5 million project from “some day” to “let’s schedule it.” The plan would take the unused railroad bridge and turn it into a bike and pedestrian span, with work hopefully starting in 2026.

Next up the river, the Market Street Bridge is set for major rehabilitation, with a decade-long project estimated to cost $63.8 million. The re-design would repair and widen sidewalks, among other fixes, but recently received blowback following a last-minute proposal by PennDOT to build a horrible utility bridge alongside the graceful stone-arch structure.

Then there’s what I consider to be the visual jewel, perhaps the symbol of Harrisburg—the 132-year-old, wrought iron Walnut Street Bridge. New federal funds also have benefitted this project, with HATS expecting to use about $3.5 million to undertake rehab work of the intact eastern span.

So, there you have it, three old bridges, all within 100 yards of each other, which should be treated as a single set of complementary crossings.

That’s how HATS’ parent, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, views it, as well.

“We have three bridges up against each other there,” Executive Director Steven Deck told me recently. “We are trying to figure out what the best mix of investments and projects is to accommodate bike, ped and vehicular traffic across there. It will be some combination of those bridges.”

To me, the missing piece of the puzzle is the piece that’s literally missing. The disastrous 1996 flood knocked out two huge chunks of the western portion of the Walnut Street Bridge, leaving a big gap between the west shore and City Island.

Dick Norford of Bike Harrisburg told me that, given the options, the biking community would prioritize rehabbing the walk/bike CAT Bridge over reconnecting the walk/bike Walnut Street Bridge.

That’s understandable. The CAT Bridge is an intact span and is well located for access to both the east and west shores. It might even give a big push to bicycle commuting, he said.

Indeed, I would love to see the CAT Bridge turned into a new bike/pedestrian crossing, but does it need to be either/or?

The last cost estimate, from 2014, to repair the Walnut Street Bridge’s western span was $15 to $20 million, said Andrew Bomberger, Tri-County’s transportation planning coordinator.

That’s no small sum, but maybe funds could be found elsewhere. For example, could the very expensive, prolonged Market Street Bridge project be scaled back?

At the very least, I hope that fixing the Walnut Street Bridge gets back on the radar. In its current state, the bridge is like an otherwise beautiful smile that’s missing a couple of teeth. Harrisburg may never be truly whole until it’s fixed.

In the end, the genteel Walnut Street Bridge is really a walking bridge, a running bridge. The robust, sturdy Market Street Bridge is really a car bridge. And the CAT Bridge would largely be a biking bridge, with an easy connection to the Capital Area Greenbelt.

Three historic bridges, three uses, three modalities, each separate but functioning as a whole, complementing one another as they move bodies across the Susquehanna for another century.

Lawrance Binda is the co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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