It would take some time, but Bethlehem could be getting a makeover.
Four years after the founding of the Bethlehem Citizens Pedestrian Bridge initiative, a feasibility study will be conducted, using city and grant funding, to determine the implications of constructing a pedestrian bridge to connect the North and South sides of Bethlehem.
“The initial idea came from the public. I’ve lived in Bethlehem a long time, and I’ve never seen a public initiative that included so many people,” said Doug Roysdon of the Lehigh Valley Sierra Club. “You usually look in the paper and say, ‘Oh look, ‘they’ are going to do that, but this time the ‘they’ is so clearly us.’”
In March 2019, the city applied for two grants to fund a feasibility study to estimate the cost, logistics, engineering tactics, legal constraints, economic impacts and risks of building a pedestrian bridge across the Lehigh River.
In 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources awarded Bethlehem a $40,000 matching grant. In August 2020, Bethlehem City Council unanimously voted to allocate city funds to match the grant.
And in January 2020, Northampton County awarded Bethlehem a $60,000 grant for the study.
The funds will come from the non-utility capital fund that pays for one-time capital projects. The city maintains the fund to meet the bank’s criteria when taking out bonds every other year, said Councilman J. William Reynolds.
At the Nov. 17 city council meeting, Councilman Bryan Callahan voted against the approval to move forward with the feasibility study.
“I would like to see it go to things we can see — roads are falling apart,” Callahan said when asked where he would rather see the money in the non-utility capital budget allocated.
Roysdon said there is pressure to build more parking lots with city funds, however, this would only encourage more traffic.
“Filling the streets with cars, that’s not the modern city; the bridge is about the new city, the opening up of safe biking, public health, trail systems, and an interactive culture,” Roysdon said.
Reynolds said after the feasibility study is completed, if the city decides to move forward, funding for the pedestrian bridge will likely come from public and private sources. He emphasized the importance of state, federal and county grants in funding the project.
“We owe it to the people of Bethlehem,” said Councilwoman Olga Negron at the Nov. 17 council meeting. “We are their voices. They have been talking about it and they want it.”
There are 28 public endorsements for the bridge from organizations including Lehigh University’s Southside Initiative, ArtsQuest, Backyards for Wildlife and the Sierra Club, Roysdon said.
“I can only guess that all of the businesses on both sides are in favor of this, as it would increase traffic to all of the small businesses just as it would increase traffic for us,” said Curt Mosel, chief operating officer of ArtsQuest.
Lynn Rothman, director of Backyards for Wildlife, said the bridge would help further the Bethlehem Climate Action Plan, as it encourages less car usage and promotes walking and cycling.
A citizens team composed of Roysdon and Lehigh University professors Mary Foltz, Anthony Viscardi and Nik Nikolov reviewed seven companies that bid on the feasibility study. Ultimately, WRT Design was chosen, and city council approved the company in a 6-1 vote at the Nov. 17 meeting.
Roysdon said the team will meet with WRT later this month.
“(WRT design) really cares about the input from the citizens of Bethlehem,” Roysdon said.
Moving forward, citizens will be involved in the potential future of the bridge, and there will be a series of public meetings and surveys.