Meadville Tribune

January 8, 2014

PennDOT, municipalities gearing up to fight over Smock Bridge sidewalk responsibility

By Mary Spicer
Meadville Tribune

— Once the planned reconstruction of Smock Bridge is complete, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation no longer wants to be responsible for maintaining a walkway allowing pedestrians to cross the bridge linking the City of Meadville and Vernon Township along the busy Routes 6, 19 and 322 corridor.

However, three local municipalities are gearing up to fight the change.

The walkway across the heavily-traveled bridge was closed almost a year ago when inspectors found the railing along its outside edge to be unsafe due to rust and deterioration.

At the time, PennDOT announced that repairing the railing wasn’t an option. “It’s too large an expense of a project to do as a separate maintenance job, so (it will) have to wait until a rehabilitation project on the bridge,” spokesperson Jim Carroll said last June.

“I’m sure (pedestrians) will find their own next-best ways to walk,” Carroll added. “I’m sure none of them will be as convenient as that walkway, but it depends on where people live and where they want to go.”

In late October 2013, PennDOT notified the City of Meadville and Vernon and West Mead townships that the department will reconstruct the bridge beginning in 2015. At the same time, the municipalities were notified that PennDOT will petition the state’s Public Utilities Commission to assign responsibility for maintaining the sidewalk to the city and both townships.

The players

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Code — Title 66 of Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, to be exact — gives the Public Utility Commission sole authority to order highway railroad crossings in the state to be “constructed, altered, relocated, suspended or abolished.” This applies to crossings at-grade, above grade and below grade.

The Smock Memorial Bridge was constructed in 1950 by Pennsylvania’s Department of Highways (now PennDOT) to replace an existing at-grade railroad crossing with an elevated crossing, putting the bridge under the jurisdiction of the PUC.

The three municipalities are involved because the bridge crosses between the city and Vernon Township along a route passing high above a small triangle of West Mead Township.

In August 1950, the PUC issued an order, amended in January 1952, assigning responsibility for construction costs and ongoing maintenance responsibility for various items related to the elevated crossing known as Smock Memorial Bridge to the Department of Highways, the city and both townships.

These items included installation and ongoing maintenance costs of street lighting on the bridge, drainage facilities on South Park Avenue and the north bridge approach ramp, and the concrete sidewalk on the north bridge approach ramp. Responsibility for paying the electric bill for lighting the bridge, for example, was divided by the PUC among the three municipalities. Today, Penelec bills the city for all the lighting and the city sends pro-rated bills to the other municipalities based on the number of lights installed within their municipal boundaries. According to Tim Groves, the city’s finance director, West Mead pays for three and Vernon Township pays for six; the rest are Meadville’s responsibility.

Responsibility for maintaining the sidewalk on the bridge structure was assigned to the Department of Highways, which has performed the task since the completion of the bridge in 1952.

Simply keeping the sidewalk free of snow demonstrates a bit of the complexity involved. A 2007 story in The Meadville Tribune included a post-snowstorm interview with PennDOT’s Crawford County maintenance manager, who explained that his crews get to the bridge’s sidewalk whenever they can.

Because the snow can’t be blown or dumped over the side on the lower ends of the bridge that are over land, it sometimes takes a backhoe to lift the snow out of the pedestrian area. “We have to be careful,” Rick Supel told the Tribune. “We may have to block the road, sign it, close a lane down. If we’re in the middle of a snowstorm, for safety reasons, we have to consider if we want to restrict traffic in a snowstorm.”

The objections

All three municipalities are in the process of preparing resolutions to be presented to the PUC asking that maintenance responsibility for the sidewalk remain with PennDOT in accordance with the original order. Their objections include, but are not limited to,

- The sidewalk is an integral part of the bridge structure.

- The municipalities are reluctant to be responsible for a part of the bridge structure.

- The change would add an additional financial and administrative burden to the municipalities.

- Distributing responsibility for the same sidewalk could cause varying levels of service resulting in difficulties for pedestrians using the sidewalk.

According to Meadville City Manager Joe Chriest, all three municipalities have been working to formulate common resolutions for presentation to PUC.

As Vernon Township Manager Dave Stone sees it, bridge maintenance is PennDOT’s responsibility. “(The sidewalk) doesn’t affect the township,” he said during a recent interview. “We’ve never maintained sidewalks. We don’t even have sidewalks.” Vernon Township supervisors are expected to address the issue during their February meeting.

During their January meeting Monday night, West Mead Township supervisors unanimously passed a resolution recommending that no changes or amendments be made to the existing PUC order for sidewalk maintenance and lighting.

All three West Mead supervisors agree that the bridge must have a sidewalk — and that the sidewalk must be set apart from the traffic lane with a barrier much like the existing barrier.

“The sidewalk needs to be repaired, replaced and put back to its original intent by the group that has been doing it all these years,” Supervisor John Shartle said.

Meadville City Council will address the issue during their January monthly meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. in Meadville City Building.