Bethlehem looks to build pedestrian bridge

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The city of Bethlehem will apply for a grant to fund a feasibility study of a pedestrian bridge across the Lehigh River, city council decided at a March 19 meeting.

Three years ago, Doug Roysdon, a member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club of the Lehigh Valley, met with Drew Sontag, a landscape architect who is involved with charting trails through Lehigh and Northampton counties, to discuss the possibility of such a bridge.

“He indicated that miles and miles of Pennsylvania could be connected if we just had a decent pedestrian bridge across the Lehigh River,” Roysdon said. “So, I took it to the Sierra Club, and it was totally embraced. And very soon after we linked up the South Side Initiative.”

While connecting the Delaware and Lehigh and Greenway Rail trails, the bridge could bring economic and lifestyle benefits to the city.

In 2016, the South Side Initiative, Sierra Club and other community members formed the Pedestrian Bridge Committee. The committee has held public meetings promoting the benefits of the bridge to the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and the city, said Mary Foltz, the co-director of The South Side Initiative at Lehigh University and an associate professor in English.

“This is a bottom-up vision of the future of Bethlehem, and it started with community members coming together to share a vision that we wanted,” Foltz said.

She stressed that the bridge could come at virtually no additional cost to residents.

“One of the things that citizens of Bethlehem are really worried about (regarding) the pedestrian bridge is that somehow their taxes are going to increase or somehow we’re going to have to pay for it,” Foltz said. “Part of how we want to address that is that no taxes are going to go up for this. Funding will come from grants.”

City council voted in favor of applying for a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which is due April 10. If the money is granted, the feasibility study will move forward.

“The feasibility study will deal with where the bridge might go, and that’s always been the big question,” Roysdon said.

Roysdon said businesses may also help fund the project.

Safety is another important reason for looking into the study. There have been two bicycle accidents resulting in death on The Fahy Bridge, Roysdon said.

“The exhaust on the existing bridges makes it not so pleasant to walk on them,” Foltz said. “They’re frequently congested. People don’t feel safe. So, our city impedes walkability.”

Anthony Viscardi, an architecture professor at Lehigh, has taught two semesters of a community design studio called Building Community Bridges. In the class, students have done research, surveys and proposals of a potential pedestrian bridge in Bethlehem.

One of his student’s surveys demonstrates that the majority of Lehigh students feel disconnected from North Bethlehem. He said the bridge would connect Lehigh students to the community in a way that is currently lacking.

The South Side Initiative chose to support this project because it aligns with its founding vision.

“(We want to) create community-university partnerships that draws all kinds of knowledge to benefit our city,”  Foltz said.

Supporters of the bridge believe that a pedestrian bridge would link the communities of North and South Bethlehem.

“When we started to think about the bridge, we really started to think about the city as a whole, not just North Side and South Side,” Viscardi said.

He said he believes that people travel less across the river because every time they do, they have to pay for parking. Viscardi said the bridge is about making Bethlehem a more livable city.

The bridge could bring economic benefits as well. Roysdon said the addition of a bridge would allow for commercial development and more recreational spaces, and would increase property values of those homes and businesses located near the bridge.

For Viscardi, he said Bethlehem should be asking, “How do we deal with pedestrian transportation in the 21st century?”

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