NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> The Newtown Borough Council at its February work session will consider partnering with Newtown Township and the Newtown Creek Coalition to explore the feasibility of building a pedestrian bridge across the Newtown Creek.
At its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14 Mike Sellers, from the Newtown Creek Coalition, detailed the coalition’s vision for a footbridge that would span the creek via an existing right of way between Frost Lane in Newtown Borough and the Sycamore Center in Newtown Township.
As photographs flashed across the screen, Sellers said the span would create a safe, recreational and pedestrian connection across the Newtown Creek that would provide a missing link in the local and regional trail system and easy pedestrian access between residential neighborhoods in Newtown Borough and Newtown Township’s commercial core.
“A bridge at this particular location across the Newtown Creek would benefit many of the goals of both the borough and the township,” said Sellers, referring to the numerous local and regional trail connections that could be achieved with the new span.
More importantly, said Sellers, a new span would provide a safe alternative for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Up until 2016, residents had the option of crossing the creek using a pedestrian bridge located off of North State Street. That bridge, however, which is located on private property, was shut down after it fell into disrepair and became a liability to the property owner.
Pedestrians also have the option of crossing at the two existing bridges - one owned by the county on Jefferson and the other owned by the state at Centre Avenue.
But Sellers called both spans problematic for safe pedestrian crossings, noting that they only have a walkway on one side, which makes two way pedestrian traffic a challenge, especially during high traffic times and special events.
And Sellers said retrofitting either bridge with a second sidewalk to create a safer condition would be a “tremendous struggle.
“The good news is pedestrians can cross in some fashion. The bad news is it is particularly difficult and dangerous for bikers, walkers and strollers to get across the creek,” said Sellers.
The envisioned footbridge would utilize an existing right of way once used by a trolley line before it was discontinued in 1923. It would also use the existing stone piers dating from the 1800s as footings for the bridge.
In its day, the trolley line, which transported people from Bristol to Doylestown and points beyond, such as Easton, was hugely successful. In 1910, there were more than 1,198,307 individual passenger trips on the line. That number increased to 1,273,000 by 1912.
To put those numbers in perspective, the population of Pennsylvania at the time was slightly more than six million, said Sellers.
“This trolley line was an exceptionally popular means of transportation,” said Sellers, noting that service stopped on the line in 1923, the victim of the growing popularity of the automobile.
Sellers said the project would be a good candidate for grant dollars, having recreational, historical, energy conservation, transportation and stormwater benefits along with being a public-nonprofit partnership.
The bridge itself, said Sellers, could come from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), which he said has a long standing program of repurposing bridges and maintains an inventory of old railroad spans that have either been taken apart and stored for future use or left in place for projects such as this one.
“This is a resource we may be able to take advantage of to get an existing bridge,” said Sellers. “The challenge will be to find out exactly what it is design-wise we need to do to make it fit the piers. Are these piers structurally sufficient? What load can it take? How big of a bridge do we need?
According to Sellers, PennDOT sells the trusses for a dollar, but buyers have to pay the cost of transporting them to the site. That cost, he said, could be paid for through grants.
“The point is there are bridges out there available for $1 that we could access as part of this project,” said Sellers.
The coalition initially brought the concept plan to the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors this past fall. In November, the supervisors subsequently voted to start the ball rolling on the project, passing a resolution establishing a working group to explore the feasibility and available state grants to build the structure.
According to Sellers, between 60 and 65 percent of the project is located in Newtown Township with the balance in the borough.
“It is for this reason Newtown Township was first approached about its interest in pursuing the pedestrian bridge,” Sellers told council. “Obviously if the township for any reason was not interested in moving forward there would be no point to talk to the borough about it.”
After hearing the presentation, the councilors expressed general support for the idea, but said they’d like to hear what borough residents have to say before adopting a resolution. They have scheduled a vote on the resolution for its February 5 work session.
“I find this proposal an excellent idea and something that should be fostered. And we should assist in any way we can,” said Councilor Robert Szwajkos, noting he heard from many residents during his campaign for council about improving pedestrian and bicycle access to the shopping centers.
“We have a vibrant shopping area in Newtown Township and any way of making it accessible other than by car is a good one that’s recognized on both sides of the creek,” said Sellers.
Szwajkos suggested the coalition reach out to the owners of the Village at Newtown Shopping Center, which worked recently with the local historic commissions to preserve the Toll House with an adaptive reuse.
“Maybe we can talk to them about bike lanes and bike parking areas within the shopping center to alleviate some of the parking issues that are going to happen when the new section opens,” he said.
During public comment, borough business owner and avid biker Harry Betz said he supports the idea, but said other additions would have to be made to create safe access to the span, especially at Sycamore Street, which he called particularly challenging for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross.
“Is there any thought on sidewalks and/or a bike lane to direct people coming in that direction into town or wherever they want to go?” he asked.
Sellers said the longer term goal would be to make the bridge easily accessible with bike and pedestrian lane connections. “That’s something as we go along that we will be looking at,” he said.