The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is planning to fix the state Route 378 Hill-to-Hill Bridge and encourages the public to offer comments, questions or concerns about the project display. The project plans display is open to community input until May 7, and is viewable online due to the governor’s COVID-19 policies.
PennDOT has started to plan and design what repairs will be made to the historic state bridge, which supports about 55,000 vehicles daily. The Hill-to-Hill Bridge is nearly a century old and has 13 spans that cross the Lehigh River, Sand Island Park, the D&L Canal Trail and many rail lines.
Bethlehem director of public works and city engineer Michael Alkhal said the Hill-to-Hill Bridge is one of three main access points across the Lehigh River. He said the city and state have been working closely together, and that they need to address not only the bridge’s needed repairs but also capacity issues.
He has observed significant queuing and delays accessing the bridge from the Second Street Ramp among other movements, and thinks travel lanes should be widened. According to Alkhal, the city wants to create more access to the Second Street Ramp from Second Street and improve accommodations and safety for pedestrians with widened sidewalks.
“Structurally, the bridge needs some major rehab,” Alkhal said. “It’s a key structure that carries a lot of traffic. These types of structures get annually inspected, and when there are issues they get addressed. And at some point, it gets to the point that they need major rehab or replacement. This one is due for that.”
Alkhal added that it is critical that traffic accessing the hospital be maintained during construction, so the planning process also takes this into consideration.
District Press Officer Ronald J. Young said he recognizes that the bridge is a major conduit not just for automobiles, but also for bicyclists and pedestrians. Young is involved in the public communication aspect of the project plans, so he takes Bethlehem residents into account as the Hill-to-Hill Bridge rehabilitation plans continue.
“Pre-pandemic, you’d get literally thousands of people a day coming to and from the Wind Creek Casino, Lehigh University as well as other things offered in the city of Bethlehem,” Young said. “It’s a major area for people who work at the hospital, at the university, at the casino and several other businesses in the area who use this roadway.”
Young aims to ensure that the technical plans are presented in a way that is comprehensible to the public for full understanding. According to Young, the hope would be to start construction in 2024 if all plans are approved.
“We want people to take a look at it, review it, and if they see anything that they think we missed, let us know. If they see things they like, let us know. If there are things they don’t like and maybe should be modified or eliminated, let us know, as well,” Young said.
Design Services engineer David Rostron is part of the team that does most of the engineering work, according to Young.
Rostron describes his role as a “higher level reviewer” who reviews many submissions in the design process. He also oversees all environmental aspects of project plans. Rostron said maintaining traffic is crucial for a project that is set to take years, but PennDOT has made it a project goal to maintain two-way traffic as much as possible during the bridge rehabilitation.
“One of the decisions that’s made early on in these projects is looking at what do we need to maintain the existing traffic, especially with this being a higher-level road that definitely needs to be kept open as much as possible,” Rostron said. “Ultimately, you have to do some closures at times to get something done, especially with the structure involved, but we will try to keep those off peak time frames. Late night or over the weekend.”
Rostron also values public input, as civilians are impacted if they rely on the bridge daily.
“Some of us don’t live there every day, so it’s definitely important to get any input from anyone who is more affected by what we’re going to do,” Rostron said.
It is also legally required for the community to have the opportunity to provide feedback on these types of projects and have access to and the space to voice opinions on any project plans to this scale.
“Public comment is an important component of these types of projects,” Alkhal said. “And rightfully so. The purpose of that is for the public to have an opportunity to provide feedback, of course these projects are funded by the public.”