The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission this week announced that it has scheduled a June 22 virtual open house to complete the final design process for a multi-faceted rehabilitation of the 125-year-old Northampton Street Toll-Supported Bridge (“the free bridge”) between Easton, PA. and Phillipsburg, NJ.
The impending project originally was proposed to start earlier this year and reach completion no later than early 2022. This schedule, however, had to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As currently scheduled, project construction is now expected to begin in the fall of this year and reach completion in the spring of 2023.
To set this work in motion, a virtual open house is scheduled to take place 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22. The session will be held via the Zoom conferencing platform, with public access afforded online or over the phone through teleconferencing. The web address and phone number for the open house will be announced at a later date and posted on the Commission’s website.
The open house will have a roughly 20 to 30 minute project presentation followed by a question and answer period for the public. The presentation will outline the project’s purpose, identify substructure and superstructure conditions that need rehabilitation or repair, show the new lighting systems that are planned for the bridge, explain the travel lane patterns that will be used to carry out the project’s constructions stages, and summarize the project’s anticipated schedule.
The presentation will be posted on the project’s webpage after the open house, allowing the public an additional opportunity to provide comment before the project’s final design process ends on June 30.
The project’s major tasks are:
- Strengthen floor beams (steel members below the bridge’s road deck)
- Repair/replace buckling steel eye-bar components on the center portion of the bridge, the section that was reconstructed after the 1955 river flood
- Replace the bridge’s two deteriorating fiberglass walkway surfaces
- Outfit the bridge with a new architectural-lighting system
- Repair deteriorating masonry at the bridge’s abutments and wingwalls
- Repaint the bridge
The project’s design work is being conducted by GPI of Lebanon, N.J. under a contract the Commission awarded for a not-to-exceed amount of $1,420,768.65 in April 2020.
The Commission has established a webpage – www.drjtbc.org/project/freebridge — to explain the project and provide additional background.
If the revised project schedule holds, work will begin later this year — during the bridge’s 100th anniversary of being converted from a private tolled crossing to a publicly owned “free” crossing.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania jointly purchased the bridge from the former Easton Delaware Bridge Co. for $300,000 on Aug. 3, 1921. The purchase was facilitated by the former so-called Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges – Pennsylvania-New Jersey, the predecessor body to the DRJTBC. The states then paid the former Joint Commission annual equal tax subsidies to operate and maintain the bridge. This arrangement was passed on to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC), which replaced the former Joint Commission in December 1934.
The tax-subsidies arrangement with the two states continued until July 1, 1987, when the bridge’s ownership was conveyed outright to the Bridge Commission. The DRJTBC has since operated and maintained the bridge through a share of the revenues it collects at its toll bridges. This funding arrangement is prescribed under changes the two states and the U.S. Congress made to the Commission’s bi-state compact between 1984 and 1987.
The Northampton Street Bridge is the second oldest vehicular bridge between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The bridge’s construction reached completion in early 1896. The bridge was designed by James Madison Porter III, a prominent engineer who led the civil engineering department at Lafayette College for decades.
The bridge replaced a wooden covered bridge that served the Easton-Phillipsburg area for 89 years. That bridge was the second bridge to span the Delaware. It was owned and operated by the Easton Delaware Bridge Company, which raised construction capital through sales of stock and, to a lesser degree, regional lotteries. The shareholder-owned company opened the bridge for use and collection of tolls on October 14, 1806. The bridge was designed by Timothy Palmer of Newburyport, MA., who is widely regarded as one of America’s foremost early 19th century wooden bridge designers.
Because of the old wooden bridge’s logistical and economic importance when the need arose to replace it in the early 1890s, Professor Porter staged the erection of his steel replacement bridge in a manner that literally engulfed the old structure’s wooden cartway so that it could continue in service between the two communities through much of construction. At the time, traffic was largely horse-drawn. Under the construction contract with the Union Bridge Co., trolley service also was maintained.
While the steel bridge is colloquially referred to nowadays as “the free bridge,” the former Easton Delaware Bridge Company operated it as a tolled crossing for its first 25 years. All totaled, the river crossing has operated longer with tolls than without them – 115 years, 1806 to 1921 with a toll; and 100 years, 1921 to 2021 without a toll.
Over the decades, Porter’s steel bridge has been rehabilitated/ repaired multiple times. After the historic 1955 river flood destroyed the bridge’s center span, the missing section was replaced two years later.
The bridge’s last rehabilitation occurred in 2001. That project involved repair and replacement of some structural steel components, removal of lead paint and repainting, replacement of sidewalk decking, and installation of new pedestrian railings.
The 550-foot-long, 36-foot-wide bridge is the Commission’s busiest non-toll crossing. It carried a daily average of 16,900 vehicles (both directions) in 2019 (pre-COVID) and 15,100 vehicles in 2020 (COVID). The bridge has a three-ton weight limit and a 15-mph speed limit. Bridge monitors are stationed at each end of the bridge on a 24/7 basis to prevent crossings of overweight vehicles.
The bridge is a cantilever truss that is designed to mimic the appearance of a suspension bridge There is only one other bridge in the world with these distinctive features – the Liberty Bridge on the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary. Largely because of its unique engineering and design, the Northampton Street Bridge is revered by bridge historians and engineers. For example, the online bridge history site – www.historicbridges.org – gives the structure a 10 rating on a scale of 10. Plaques affixed to the bridge’s truss affirm its status as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.