Replacement work begins on Halcottsville bridge

By Julia Green
Work began Monday morning on the controversial and long-delayed replacement of a bridge that carries the Bragg Hollow Road over the East Branch of the Delaware River in Halcottsville. The bridge and its replacement have been the subject of much dissent over the course of the past year and even earlier, as Middletown Supervisor Len Utter said that plans to replace the bridge have been on the table since as far back as 1996.
“It has been a real inconvenience for you people here,” Utter said to a group of Halcottsville residents on hand at an informational meeting held in the Halcottsville Firehall on Thursday night. “One thing after another has got in the way.” Halcottsville residents and local business owners Jim and Susan Kelly, who have been the chief opponents of the county’s plans to rebuild the bridge, were out of town on vacation and were not at the meeting.
Wayne Reynolds, the commissioner of public works for Delaware County, was on hand at the meeting to offer a Power Point presentation detailing the project.
“This time we have a real set schedule and you’ll see some action,” he promised those present. “This project has been on the books for a long time, and that’s not something we’re necessarily proud of.”
The last meeting regarding replacement of the bridge was held in May of 2008 in conjunction with the Middletown Town Board meeting, at which plans and concerns were discussed and a history of the project to date was reviewed.
At Thursday’s meeting, Reynolds provided a brief overview of the project’s history to date, including an explanation of the first round of plans that were finalized to build a new bridge on the current alignment that would include sheet piling abutments for scour protection to minimize impact on the adjoining property. Reynolds said that the county was “very concerned” about driving sheets in close proximity to the old mill, which “could potentially cause damage to the old building,” and as a result evaluated a number of alternatives.
After what he described as an e-mail campaign that reached international levels, Reynolds said that a downstream alternative was agreed to and that new right-of-way maps were developed, but following the downward turn of the economy, that project was no longer a possibility as proposed.
“It is imperative that it be replaced,” Reynolds said of the bridge. “We cannot keep it open any longer.”
The bridge has been inspected every week, and has been reduced to a three-ton weight limit; the plans being implemented are to construct what Reynolds referred to as a “temporary bridge,” which will use the existing abutments, remove the existing bridge, place a grade beam on top, place new steel, place a timber deck and install a guide-rail. The one-lane bridge will not have a load posting, meaning it will be open to any weight limit legal on roadways in the State of New York, it will be founded on concrete-grade beams, and its steel will extend “well onto the banks” on either side. The “temporary” status of the bridge (and what Reynolds cited as the only concerns regarding the structure) was that the bridge will not have scour protection, and as a result should not be crossed if the road or bridge is submerged.
“A permanent structure has about a 75-year life span,” Reynolds said. “The structure we’re putting in out here, because we don’t have scour protection, can I promise you that bridge will be there in 75 years? I cannot. But if we get scour that undermines the beams, we’ll be back in here if those existing abutments fail.”
“We’re actually building a new house without the foundation,” Utter added.
The bridge is essentially being replaced in kind, and construction is anticipated to take roughly six weeks. The width of the bridge will be just over 16 feet from rail to rail – the same measurement as its current width. The reasons for maintaining the width are twofold, Reynolds said.
“We have a legal right to maintain what we have historically maintained,” he said, adding that construction is also confined in terms of adding any width to the structure. “We’re pretty much replacing the structure in kind,” he said. “It takes less time to build a new one than it does to rebuild an old one.”
Reynolds added that construction crews “will have to build this bridge with one hand behind [their] backs,” citing the lack of right-of-way that the county would need to relocate the power line that poses a challenge to the construction crew’s use of cranes.
The bridge will be closed during construction, and no detour signs will be posted.
“We’re still hoping someday the landowner and the county can come to some sort of agreement,” Utter said in closing. “I’m not really happy with this type of structure, but it’s the lesser of two evils. We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.”
The budget for the project is $220,000.
Jim Kelly expressed disappointment that the meeting and subsequent start of construction took place while he was out of the country.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’m searching for a word… I guess I shouldn’t be totally surprised that they tried this while I was out of the country.”
Kelly said that his last official communication with Reynolds was in January, when he received some right of way maps and was told that he would be receiving more maps, which Kelly said he never received.
“The county attorney sent me a letter last week while I was in Europe saying that they weren’t going to pursue any taking easements,” he said. “I was under the impression that they were still going to be moving the bridge.”
Still, Kelly was not entirely opposed to the resolution that the county reached of replacing the structure in kind, and was hopeful that the plans would mean little to no impact on the structures on his property.
“They haven’t shown me once what they’re doing, so I have no way of really assessing what they’re doing,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s going to work out OK, but I have no way of basing it on anything. I just think it wasn’t as forthright as it could have been in keeping us in the loop.
“Listen, I want the bridge, Susan wants the bridge… I just want to be able to grow old there and enjoy it,” he said. “I just hope if there is any damage – well, last time they said if there was any damage I’d have to sue them. If I do I hope they stand up, because if I have to sue them it’s going to be for a lot of money. The sheer mental anguish of this – it’s taken a toll on my life, and I hope it goes smoothly, because if it doesn’t I’m going to sue them for millions.”