Construction should (finally) start on the Schuylkill Banks swing bridge next spring

The day when the trail will connect from Center City down to Bartram’s Garden is getting closer.

Schuylkill River Grays Ferry
Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

The only sound breaking the tranquility at the southern end of the Grays Ferry Crescent on a recent weekday afternoon was Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” coming from a speaker next to Chrissy Allen. She was fishing with a couple of friends, including Schuylkill Banks employee Elliott Jennings, who’d stopped by for a quick visit.

It’s a great spot. There’s enough room to spread out and position four fishing poles on the river’s edge. But when Jennings and Allen peered across the Schuylkill from their waterfront perch, they saw an old dock that would be ideal for reeling in carp and catfish, too. If only there were an easy way to get across.

“That’d be so nice,” Allen said.

Fortunately for them and others who frequent the Grays Ferry Crescent, Bartram’s Mile and other parts of the Schuylkill Banks trail, the long-discussed renovation of the swing bridge is nearing a construction date. When complete, it will let pedestrians and cyclists cross the Schuylkill from the Crescent over to Bartram’s Mile. Joseph Syrnick, president and CEO of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, said crews should begin work by March. The bridge should be ready by the end of 2019.

The swing bridge was originally built in 1902 for railroad crossings. When barges came by on the river it would swing to its open position and let them through. The structure is still there in the water, locked in the open position since it was abandoned in the 1970s, but is mostly unsalvageable.

This latest redevelopment timeframe comes after considerable delay. The swing bridge, which will cost about $13 million, originally got full funding in November 2015 after being awarded a federal TIGER grant. The goal was for construction to begin in summer 2016 and for the bridge to be completed by the end of this year.

But the federal funding came with a few problems. The bridge was slowed down by a bureaucratic process that is still ongoing. Before the SRDC can even release a Request For Proposal they still need a Coast Guard permit. Syrnick believes approval should come soon enough for them to release the RFP next month.

Schuylkill River Grays Ferry
Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

There was also the question of whether the 115-year-old truss from the swing bridge could be saved. The Coast Guard determined it was not usable, so the SRDC formed a plan to connect two remaining pieces of bridge on each side of the river with a new truss extending 226 feet across. Its height will be about 32 feet. It will be lighter and require less complicated movement mechanisms.

“Some people wanted to make it so we were forced to reuse that truss,” Syrnick said. “The city especially didn’t want to do that. It’s now 115 years old. If you’re putting it back in as a movable bridge there’s all kinds of stresses that go on with that.”

The SRDC would actually like someone — anyone — to take the old truss off its hands. Syrnick said they “could have it for free, but they’ve got to kind of move it” by next spring. Reuse of the old truss would please the State Historic Preservation Office, which tries to save old bridges like this one that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The Grays Ferry Crescent has been opened for several years and the Bartram’s Mile since earlier this year. Syrnick said both experience light crowds, a fraction of what the Schuylkill Banks gets in Center City, and he expects traffic to increase significantly when the swing bridge is done.

As Syrnick noted, the completion of the swing bridge will also get people thinking about how nice it would be if the Schuylkill Banks ran continuously from Center City into Grays Ferry and onward to Bartram’s Garden. The SRDC is currently working on an extension from South Street to Christian Street.

“It will put more pressure for us and the city to connect it,” he said.

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