Members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club run into the detour around MLK Drive Bridge repairs. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

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A key connection between Center City and Philly’s most popular riverside trail closed last week for a major renovation, forcing a two-year detour that’s catching many recreational users by surprise. 

The fencing blocking off Martin Luther King Drive Bridge over the Schuylkill River — which is now off limits to vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists — was news to many people out enjoying this week’s warm weather. 

Upon learning that part of the bridge’s frame had badly deteriorated, most took a “they gotta do what they gotta do” approach to the closure.   

Cody Walsh, who was planning to use MLK Drive Bridge to bike to his fishing spot further down the river, was caught unaware, but acknowledged the upgrade was probably needed.

“It’s such a beautiful road too, I would not expect it to be deteriorating,” Walsh said, fishing rod in hand. His feelings on the project length were short and sweet: “Not good, but it’s probably for the better.”

The renovation has been in the works since summer 2021. Federal funds to pay for the much-needed $20.1 million fix came through in November, via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

Officials initially hoped construction would be complete this fall, but the finish date has been pushed back multiple times, and is now set for spring 2025. The bridge will be blocked off for the entire period, and parts of the Schuylkill River Trail that run under the bridge will at some point also be shut down, for up to six months.

Philadelphia’s official detour map around the MLK Drive Bridge closure. (City of Philadelphia, PDF)

To help people navigate around the restricted area, the city created a map with suggested adjusted routes for vehicles and pedestrians. 

Two joggers ran up to the fence on Tuesday a bit confused, and turned to start heading down a different path. 

“We usually go down this bike trail, it’s always nice that it’s always pretty empty,” Alex, one of the runners, told Billy Penn. “We didn’t realize it was closed, to be honest, because we don’t ever drive down here.”

An annoying detour — but expanded recreational access

Some regular users of the riverside trail have been sharing alternate workarounds to the detour, and the consensus is generally “this sucks.” 

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has offered another detour route, designed for cyclists.

Zach Siswick, who biked up to the “Building A Better America” sign featured on most BIL-funded project sites, said he was aware of the BCGP’s reroute but was trying to get a closer look at the map “to see exactly where the access was limited.”

Beyond the bridge, parts of MLK Drive proper will be closed to vehicles for the entire weekend, allowing pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers, and others to take over. That’s more extensive than in the past; closures used to extend from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m on weekends — the new car-free period will stretch from 7 a.m. Saturday through 7 a.m. Monday. 

Hearing about the expanded closure plans, Siswick was pleasantly surprised. “Whenever power is given back to cyclists versus cars I think it’s great,” they said.

The “Building A Better America” sign is featured at project sites funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

MLK Drive Bridge’s profile as a car-free street rose when it closed for 17 months during the early months of COVID, bringing more residents out to the area for all kinds of recreation. 

At least 5,000 residents wanted the closure to be permanent, according to a BCGP-circulated petition, and the conversation in early 2021 about bringing cars back was emblematic of the clashing concerns around road use and safety in Philadelphia.

The bridge closure still has open streets advocates musing about the possibility that the coming years could demonstrate that parts of the roadway aren’t essential, but instead a space that could grow into a prominent area for recreation and non-vehicular travel.

Azyiah, a member of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club who was enjoying a spring break stroll, shared their thoughts on the bridge’s crumbling underbelly from horseback. 

“That’s dangerous, I expect better from people who are supposed to build our city, they should have been checking it regularly,” Azyiah said. 

Local and state bridges are getting a much needed federal funding boost 

MLK Drive Bridge is a locally-owned road that must be inspected at least every two years, per PennDOT rules. But repair funds had been lacking, like so many similar U.S. infrastructure projects in recent decades. 

The infrastructure law’s Bridge Formula Program is sending more than $26 billion to fix bridges around the country, with $1.6 billion directed toward the Keystone State. Last year, the commonwealth had over 3,000 bridges in poor condition, second most in the nation.

“We have an old state with old infrastructure and around 200 of the state-owned bridges moving to the poor condition category every year,” Yassmin Gramian, former secretary of the PennDOT, said at a 2022 press conference.

A view showing deterioration on the MLK Drive Bridge. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

In Philly, more than 30 capital projects to rehab and replace bridges in poor condition have been identified, per Mayor Jim Kenney. 

MLK Drive Bridge was designated as “Poor” after its 2021 inspection, which, per PennDOT’s definition, “indicates that the bridge has deterioration to one or more of its major components.”

Here’s what’s reconstruction entails:

  • Bridge superstructure and substructure will be rehabbed 
  • The bridge’s steel girders are getting a new paint job
  • New lighting and ADA ramps will be installed
  • A new concrete surface, complete with barriers and railing, is coming

“Delaying this critical rehabilitation project because of lack of funding would have been an enormous burden on the communities along both sides of the river and cause unnecessary economic impacts,” Kenney said late last month, the day the bridge closed. 

The federal-funded renovation will create an estimated 200 union jobs, Kenney said, “and ensure a balanced, safe bridge for all road users for years to come.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...