Rides We Like: A Bridge Too Old
Not far from the office of creakybottombracket.com is a disputed item so impassive that the argument has gone to court. Cyclists like yours truly have no real concern in the matter, but the locals have run out of patience of a ten-year ordeal that involves a span hardly worth noting until the layers of importance are uncovered. It is just a dilapidated bridge, yet there is much more to it.
In typical Bucks County fashion, a cyclist – or even a motorist – would side skirt the rusted ROAD CLOSED sign to descend Headquarters Road. (After much research the origin of the name Headquarters Road could not be determined.) In the hollow of Headquarters Road is an intersection with increasing piles of gravel. Follow the hillocks of stone and what greets any cyclist is a bridge with concrete bollards deterring forward progress.
I have walked or ridden Headquarters Road Bridge in all conditions. I have dismounted my bike and walked across in the snow. I have quietly negotiated the warning signs to access the other side of the creek. And then there are times when I have queued up behind waddling motorcyclists who have taken advantage of the prodigious space to allow two-wheel passage over Headquarters Bridge. Today I slipped undetected over the ancient span wondering what its future held.
You might be asking yourself what is the big deal regarding a single bridge in Bucks County but peeling back the layers is important. The bridge is older than the current presidential mansion. It has been serving the surrounding community since 1812. To have a bridge two hundred years old is quite remarkable for historic preservation. The problem is the bridge is in a state of disrepair with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDoT) claiming the foundation is ‘too old.’ It has been closed since 2011.
The bridge’s current condition is important. According to PENNDoT the span cannot support any vehicle of substantial weight. Cyclists and motorcyclists are in a state of euphoria regarding access to the second half of Headquarters Road with minimal traffic. The issue is the weightier devices. Heavier vehicles pose a problem, as do other vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks. Naturally the northern residences of Headquarters Bridge have petitioned for safer passage of essential vehicles (temporary bridge), going so far as to erect rudimentary notes on certain ROAD CLOSED signs.
PENNDoT’s suggestion has caused issue with many in the area. The Department wants to raze the current structure and install a two-lane bridge. While that would be an improvement on the one-lane mason structure, PENNDoT has very little common sense in their recent installations. For example, not far from our office PENNDoT demolished a similar fairly sensible bridge. They installed a single lane steel bridge. (Steel bridges have been found to have a lifespan of approximately eighty years.) Southbound traffic approaches the span on a downhill and heads into a blind left-hander. If the steel surface is wet skidding straight into the perpendicular stone wall could be an outcome. Cyclists have to finish crossing the steel surface before braking and before turning on the sharp curve. Northbound motorists have to negotiate the left/right turn combination before being able to see any oncoming traffic. At that point one of the motorists is required to reverse. PENNDoT’s lack of local comprehension means their submission for Headquarters should be taken with complete skepticism.
On the other end of the argument is Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental preservation organization who has petitioned to keep the span one-lane with an updated deck on repointed columns. The bridge itself falls in the historic zoning area of Tinicum and resides between two downhill sections. According to one engineer, the columns have held up well over the past two hundred years. Delaware Riverkeeper argue the bridge has no environmental impact on Tinicum Creek, designated an exceptional value waterway. The Riverkeeper’s model comes in nearly a million dollars cheaper than PENNDoT’s concept. And much of the money in the Riverkeeper’s model is in the temporary bridge to be erected during restoration.
Each time I cross this bridge I wonder its future. The bridge is accessed by a steep downhill and leads into a steep uphill, so I worry PENNDoT’s ways will continue and people not from the area will ruin a decent road. Leaving the bridge behind and climbing the remainder of Headquarters Road to Van Zant Airport can be an enjoyable and peaceful experience. Mathematically the only cars coming up from behind are local residents or motorists who have braved the dirt passage named Sheep Hole Road. Either way, it is doubtful a motorist is there by accident.
To climb away from Headquarters Road Bridge is a study in rejuvenation. The wooded areas that surround the road in both directions give the feeling of eternal morning ride experience. The trees are stoic in their growth, the streams trickle apathetically, the ferns fill in the brown forest floor, and historic houses continue their gaze of the surrounding hills. It is a hollow one can stop and soak in what Bucks County used to be like twenty, one hundred, or even two hundred years ago. That is the benefit to a closed bridge in a quiet area.
Recently an affected resident came into the bike shop and stated relief the process has entered court proceedings. The resident stated, “At this point I don’t care, just as long as it gets fixed.” I would have to disagree. If the Riverkeeper’s model wins out, saving the state $750,000, PENNDoT can use the savings to resurface the neglected portions of Headquarters Road. If recent history is any indication of what to expect, PENNDoT will install another bridge that misses the mark and move on to another project, neglecting the crumbling surfaces that lead the way. In the meantime I implore riders to make it to the hearings but also enjoy the solitude provided by a two hundred year old bridge shaking its fist at modernity. That part costs nothing.