Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

The Big Crunch: Can anything be done about the stuck trucks of Front Street?

Webb Bunch, an owner of Integrity Truck Co., has never seen Harrisburg’s notorious “low bridge” on Front Street. He wasn’t there when one of his drivers got stuck in December. But he knows he acquired an expensive problem.

“The driver said he was going down the street,” Bunch said. “Under the bridge was fine, but there’s a little dip in the road, and it kinda popped the trailer up, and the trailer hit the bridge, and it lodged him in.”

Harrisburg’s bridges. Picturesque and vital to commerce and everyday life. That is, except one that has caused headaches for years.

You know who you are, Amtrak overpass in Shipoke. The age of GPS has not solved a stuck-truck problem there that spans decades and, in fact, may now be perpetuating it.


That Bridge

“12FT 6IN,” the signs say. “500 feet,” the signs say.

Most tractor-trailers stand around 13½ feet. And yet, truckers persist in pressing their luck, often to the bad luck of motorists stuck in traffic when those trucks get jammed. Some drivers, it’s said, might be using Front Street as a shortcut to avoid the Harrisburg beltway on their way from Interstate 81 to 83.

The most recent incident occurred on Dec. 11. This was the tractor-trailer that Bunch vowed made the clearance but was foiled by that dip, which really does take vehicles nose-down even as the road veers left. Most stuck trucks extricate themselves by deflating their tires and backing up while police direct traffic, causing short-ish delays.

The December case, though, was “a rarity—thank goodness,” said Harrisburg police Sgt. Kyle Gautsch. For five hours, Front Street’s rush-hour, West Shore-bound traffic was squeezed to one lane.

The driver, knowing that his truck was already stuck, had tried to pull it through, Gautsch said. That caused the trailer to collapse, V’ing at the center. All 35,000 pounds of cargo had to be unloaded. The damaged trailer was removed from under the bridge, reinforced and pulled from the road by towers experienced in working with big rigs and trailers.

Charges, added Gautsch, “are still pending.” Truckers can be cited for disobeying traffic control signals, for a maximum fine of $25 and costs. Harrisburg posts warning signs on Front Street up the block, before the Market Street Bridge and on the Market Street Bridge itself.

A $500 fine can be imposed for restricting use of the road. The city is unlikely to be reimbursed for police services, because it’s all in a day’s work.

“We can’t bill them because they’re an inconvenience,” said Gautsch.


Culprit GPS

Stuck trucks rarely damage roads, said PennDOT spokesperson Fritzi Schreffler. It’s the bridges that can take damage, but the Front Street bridge appears to be standing the test of time.

“That has got to be one of the strongest bridges ever built,” she said.

Police officials remain confident about bridge integrity, agreed Gautsch. If the bridge ever appears significantly damaged, the responding officer would call Amtrak to inspect the site. (Amtrak did not make anyone available for an interview or respond to TheBurg’s written questions about the bridge.)

The problem occurs statewide, including at a similar spot in Carlisle where PennDOT has “signed the heck out of it,” said Schreffler. How does this pervasive problem happen? It may simply be a cyber-age twist on an old-fashioned case of drivers ignoring or missing the warning signs.

“The way we feel it’s going is that they’re blindly following GPS and not reading the signs,” Schreffler said.

Yes, bridge strikes are a statewide problem, and yes, GPS is a culprit, said Kevin Stewart, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

GPS systems are available for commercial trucks, but they can be pricey. U.S. and state trucking associations often remind drivers not to rely solely on GPS, or at least, use only those meant for commercial vehicles that track bridge clearances.

“Part of it is complacency,” Stewart told TheBurg. “Drivers have come to rely on electronics. They forget about the very simple things, like reading road signs.”

When bridge strikes cause damage to property or cargo, insurance premiums rise. Consumers can also feel the pinch in costs incurred when the intended recipient rejects the cargo, and of course, in lost time caused by traffic tie-ups.

Stuck trucks and other accidents at the two low bridges flanking UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg Hospital, including the Front Street span, “can affect visitor and employee access,” said spokesperson Kelly McCall. Hospital personnel and EMS providers know how to reach the facility through its multiple access points.

Most damage to trucks and bridges is minor, she added, but UPMC Pinnacle’s emergency operations plan includes provisions to mitigate severe structural damage or any release of hazardous materials.

Stewart didn’t have data on Pennsylvania’s bridge-strike ranking among states, but he said the problem seems prevalent in the Northeast, where low and aging infrastructure meets today’s higher, muscular trucks.


Last Out

Are more signs an answer?

“How many signs do you put up when people don’t read signs?” Schreffler responded.

How about raising the bridge?

“Can you imagine what the cost would be? They live in the same kind of world we do—data-driven.”

A funky-looking warning system erected by PennDOT at a Schuylkill County bridge has stopped bridge strikes through hanging pylons that brush excess-height roofs while there’s still time to turn off the road. However, the pylons are filled with concrete, and PennDOT’s Harrisburg-area safety engineer concluded that hanging any near this region’s trouble spots would create liability issues (“like whacking through a windshield,” the engineer told Schreffler).

After the December incident, PennDOT reviewed signage at the Front Street bridge and concluded that “it is properly signed at 12 feet, 6 inches,” said Schreffler. PennDOT is contacting the city to discuss “last out” issues—those turnoffs that over-height drivers can take to avoid the big crunch.

The problem there? Maneuvering vehicular behemoths through narrow city streets, making left turns that lead back to—you guessed it—the Front Street Amtrak bridge.

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