City cancels bridge project
Council cites rising costs, will turn down $1M grant
Concerned about rising costs, city council on Monday killed a longplanned project to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over White Clay Creek.
“I’d love to do this. I’d love to have it. I’m pro bike routes,” Councilman Mark Morehead said. “I don’t think we can afford it.”
Morehead was joined by councilmen Luke Chapman, Jerry Clifton and Chris Hamilton in voting against the bridge. Only Mayor Polly Sierer and Councilman Stu Markham supported the project, while Councilwoman Jen Wallace was absent.
The bridge, named for former Parks and Recreation Director Charles Emerson, was intended to be part of a broader plan to improve the area surrounding the former Curtis Paper Mill. The 12-foot-wide, prefabricated tress bridge would have been built just to the west of the vehicular Paper Mill Road bridge over the creek and connected Kershaw Park with the new Curtis Mill Park.
Parks and Recreation Director Joe Spadafino said the current bridge has a narrow sidewalk that is unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Building a separate bridge would provide safer passage and connect Newark’s downtown with neighborhoods and trails north of the creek.
The bridge has been discussed since 2011, and in 2015, city officials announced they had secured $1 million in federal and state grants. At the time, officials said those grants would cover the complete cost of the project.
However, after more engineering work and environmental studies were completed, the estimated cost increased to $1.75 million. The city has other grant applications pending but would have been responsible for the extra $750,000 if it did not receive the additional grants or other state funds.
Acting City Manager Tom Coleman asked council Monday for authorization to enter into a contract with the Delaware Department of Transportation to begin the design phase of the project. The city has yet to spend any money on the project. However, had Coleman signed the contract and the city pulled out later, it would have been responsible for refunding any grant money spent.
State Sen. David Sokola, State Rep. Paul Baumbach and a representative of the advocacy group BikeNewark all attended the meeting to ask council to continue its support of the bridge. Both state legislators said they would contribute some of their Community Transportation Fund money to the project but could not commit to a specific amount.
Susan Grasso, co-chair of BikeNewark, said she avoids bicycling to areas north of the creek because she feels the bridge is not safe for cycling.
“The bridge is an important link to Newark between residential neighborhoods to the north and Newark’s business district and UD’s campus to the south,” Grasso said. “It would be very appealing to those of us interested in using our bikes for everyday living but are concerned about riding too close to traffic.”
However, those comments could not allay council’s fears about the cost.
“I would love to see this bridge get built,” Clifton said. “My concern is from the financing side and the liability to the taxpayers.”
Hamilton said he is concerned that the project could continue to rise in cost.
“This is a very expensive project. We have our infrastructure falling apart,” Hamilton said. “I have to, as a legislator, choose between a bike path and fixing broken sewer lines. That’s a challenge because one is very visible, it’s like woo hoo, and the other is underground and nobody really cares about it until their sewer breaks.”
Markham said he hates to give up $1 million in grant funding and noted it could affect the city’s ability to obtain future grant funding.
“They’ll turn around and say, ‘You guys gave up $1 million, why should we give you something for your next project when you couldn’t pull the trigger on this?’,” Markham said.
On Tuesday, Sierer and Baumbach said they were disappointed the project was canceled.
“We’ve cut off our noses to spite our faces,” Sierer said, also arguing that refusing the grant money will impact future opportunities. “That will come back to haunt us.”
The bridge would have played an important role in Newark’s trail network, she said. Some cyclists have told her they’ve been clipped by vehicles’ mirrors on the bridge.
“In my travels in meeting constituents around the city, I’ve gotten no objection to this project,” she said.
Baumbach said that to bicycle across the current bridge, “you have to put your life on the line,” and building a dedicated span for cyclists and pedestrians would have been the per fect solution.
“I don’t get it,” he said, adding that he’s puzzled as to why council members didn’t support the project. “I don’t know who they’re talking to. The residents I talk to love the city’s trail system.”
“They had $1 million handed to them and they said no,” he added. “Everyone was there ready to be a partner, except city council.”
Morehead said he’s aware some residents wanted the bridge, but believes the city’s financial situation requires tough choices.
“I’ve had a number of positive comments [about the bridge], but the financial implications are overwhelming,” he said.
Morehead compared it to going out for a nice meal — it’s a nice thing to do, but only if you can afford it.
“We need to pull back in many areas, and unfortunately, this is one,” he said.
An artist’s rendering shows a pedestrian/bicycle bridge proposed to be built over White Clay Creek next to Paper Mill Road. Council canceled the project Monday.
Proponents of the Charles Emerson Bridge say the current Paper Mill Road bridge is unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists.