If the Mead Avenue Bridge story wasn’t so tragic, it would be hopelessly funny. It’s a story of mismanagement, human error, bad luck, crazy government bureaucracy and even crazier government regulations. All of these have conspired to drive up costs to the taxpayers, frustrate the Mead Avenue merchants and inconvenience a great many Crawford County residents.
The Mead Avenue Bridge provided access to as many as 8,000 cars a day in and out of the City of Meadville. It was one of the four main access points to the city and, during high water conditions, the only access and egress. It is more than a century old and has been repaired countless times. At one point, a steel super structure was fashioned to prop up the original structure. After an inspection in 1990, the bridge was closed to traffic.
I spoke with the Mabey Bridge Company at that time and they indicated that the bridge could be replaced at a cost of $650,000. While that didn’t include the removal of the old one, officials of the company claimed it would be finished in six months. The county’s contracted engineering firm, EADS, met with Mabey Bridge Co. but opted for repair of the ancient structure and the elimination of heavy traffic. At that time, Erie Industrial Electrical Supply, which occupied a 13,000 square foot building on the Vernon Township side of the bridge, was forced to close; the first of several to follow. The county, which technically owns the bridge, contracted to have the weak points buttressed with steel plates and welds and reopened the bridge in 1992. Also, at this time the Mead Avenue Bridge was placed on the state’s 10-year replacement list.
In 2007, the bridge was closed again, and again I contacted the Mabey Bridge Company and they stated that the current cost was $1,050,000 with the same six month time schedule for completion. Yet again, the county engineering firm and commissioners rejected any discussion with the company. A group of 15 businesses and interested parties along the Mead Avenue corridor formed a group to communicate with the various government agencies. We also discovered at this time that our project mysteriously was omitted from the state’s 10-year plan and it was not clear who was responsible for the error. Further, we found that in order to secure a bridge, the project would have to be approved by nearly every state agency and even the Pennsylvania Historical Society since the current bridge is a “historical artifact.” No matter that it had been closed to foot traffic.
In the meantime, the number of business closings was growing: Wolff’s Hardware, Central Tractor Supply, North Street Auto and 84 Lumber were closing entirely. The remaining businesses struggled to make up for the decreased traffic and revenue loss. Since the project was at the mercy of state and federal agencies and required engineering plans from scratch, the project moved at a painfully slow pace and time passed with no bridge, construction or even bidding process until 2010.
I personally met with the newly elected commissioners and gave them the Mabey Bridge proposal and extended an offer from Mabey to accept payment in three installments. It appeared that the commissioners had been totally invested in the EADS Engineering process and were either unable or unwilling to look at other options. To date, EADS Engineering Firm has wracked up $1,777,000 in engineering fees alone, which will be appended to the entire project. From 2010 until 2013, progress has been painfully taken through the various agencies and licensing groups.
In December 2013, I contacted Congressman Mike Kelly and he was instrumental in arranging a meeting with my engineer and steel erector and the current panel of commissioners. My group indicated that with slight plan modifications, no private property would have to be seized to construct the bridge. There was no movement in this direction or interest expressed by our commissioners.
In early January 2014, EADS met with my engineering firm, Deiss and Halmi, in Edinboro to discuss alternate engineering plans to forgo the condemnation of property on the west side of a newly constructed bridge. EADS rejected the proposal and went forward with the original, more extensive plan and the related condemnation of properties. The county is asserting that the modification of plans would cost more than the cost of procuring the condemned properties. I can’t see the justification for this assertion since the projected cost from Mabey Bridge Company is at $2,200,000. And the projected costs, using the original EADS plan, has now ballooned to an astronomical $13,000,000. To make matters worse, the project will not be completed for two or three more years.
I have taken the liberty of contacting Congressman Mike Kelly, state Reps. Michelle Brooks and Brad Roae, and also Gov. Tom Corbett, and officially requested they look into the entire matter; specifically, why EADS’ payments have been so high when the entire cost of construction has been projected at levels less than EADS’ planning, design and coordinating costs alone. Further, I have asked them to look into why alternate bridge companies not been allowed to bid on the coordination and construction of an alternative project and those bids compared with the current project.
Going forward I am scheduling a meeting at the Precision Manufacturing Institute building for all interested parties. In attendance will include the representative from Mabey Bridge Company, my engineering firm of Deiss and Halmi, a representative from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and several state officials. The Mead Avenue property owners and public officials from the county, city and township and all taxpayers and citizens of Crawford County are invited. The date and time will be announced early March.
I have been working on this entire matter for more than 20 years and feel like the proverbial prophet in the desert. It is time that all citizens of the U.S., Pennsylvania, and in particular, Crawford County, pay attention to this project. After all, you’re paying for it!
Denis E. Alexatos is a longtime Crawford County developer who owns property on the west side of the Mead Avenue Bridge in Vernon Township.