*Join us for a ride to the ribbon cutting on June 4th!
When the Ben Franklin Bridge opened in 1926, pedestrian access was still considered essential between Philadelphia and Camden and was built with two overhead walkways. Since that time the walkways went through some alterations and the north walkway eventually closed in the 1950s (after project managers ran out of money to replace the concrete walkway on the Camden side).
The south walkway remained open until 1964 and did not reopen until the Bicycle Coalition (of the Delaware Valley, as we were called then) lobbied for its reopening in 1973.
And with the completed construction and opening of the Ben Franklin Bridge ramp in Camden on June 4th, we decided to take you on a trip down Memory Lane and tell you how this project came to be, and what some of us have been doing to make sure a ramp to connect Philadelphia and Camden was made the right way for bicyclists and pedestrians. The project’s most recent update begins in the year 2000.
That year, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) proposed closing the walkway for six months to install decorative lighting. Bike Commuter Jim Kriebel made contact with the Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director Sue McNamara. McNamara, along with DVRPC Planner John Madera, began meeting with the DRPA to keep the walkway open.
The effort to head off the closure was unsuccessful but the DRPA did agree to move the walkway closing time from 6pm to 7pm and promised for future projects to open the north walkway if the south side was closed for a project.
But that promise did not apply to security concerns.
Four weeks after 9/11 attacks, the Delaware River Port Authority ordered a shutdown of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge walkway one day after KYW-TV consumer reporter Paul Moriarty broadcast a report speculating about the walkways’ vulnerability to a terrorist attack.
Back then, the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway wasn’t patrolled by police, as Moriarty thought it should be.
Weeks later, he emailed me explaining that the resulting action (closing the walkway) wasn’t his intent. Given the worrisome atmosphere of the post-9/11 world, everyone was looking for flaws in our infrastructure and security systems.
Negotiations and a public outcry forced the hand of the Authority, and the walkway re-opened in December 2001—but its semi-permanent closing had made an impact.
While DRPA police began patrolling the bridge, the closing procedure did not include a sweep of the walkway for stragglers and officers would sometimes close the gates early. More than a few times, people walking across the bridge got stuck in the middle while crossing at dusk. Bike commuter Matthew Anastasi got involved with our advocacy after he got stuck behind the gates before 7pm.
People would either have to call the DRPA, or in some cases, we heard of people jumping down onto the highway and walking back. The mounting issues with the walkway brought attention to a larger issue that the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway should be a feature, not a bug, of the portal between Philadelphia and Camden.
The bridge was closed again — without notice — after the London Bombings in July 2005. The walkway issue gained more traction and even minor snow events resulted in weeklong closures. Kriebel, Anastasi and I formed launched the Coalition’s Ben Franklin Bridge walkway committee. Its goal: to grant pedestrians full access to the bridge and construct an ADA accessible ramp.
In March 2008 Anastasi came along with the Bike Coalition volunteers to the National Bike Summit in Washington in March 2008.
Anastasi and I met with Congressman Rob Andrews. After hearing our story, Andrews called DRPA CEO John Matheussen asking that we work out the walkway issues.
The subsequent meetings resulted in the DRPA adding the ramp into its five-year Capital Improvement Program, but the home stretch wasn’t smooth.
In 2011, the Authority suffered a public relations crisis after an uptick in the bridge toll. Pressure mounted and the ramp project was deferred. However, a coalition of advocates, ranging from Camden-based businesses to nonprofits and elected officials pressed back and got the decision reversed in early 2012.
In 2017, with DRPA CEO John Hanson at the helm, the Authority approved $7.8 million in funds for the bridge ramp, and with more than $4 million in additional funds from the Federal Highway Administration and the William Penn Foundation, the project was finally underway.
The ramp is the first big expenditure from the Authority’s Capital Budget to make the bridge walkway more accessible for all users, and will widen the narrow portion of the walkway and add an ADA-compliant ramp on the Camden side.
I cannot overemphasize the culture change at the DRPA over the last decade.
Thanks to CEO John Hanson and the Citizen’s Advisory Committee, we have also made excellent progress on other issues such as bike parking and air pumps inside paid areas of PATCO stations and a protected bike lane in the 5th St Tunnel under the bridge.
We’re at a time where Camden is going through a major redevelopment. Our bike counts are already showing for the first time that more commuters are biking from Philadelphia to Camden than the reverse. And most important for me, I won’t have to trudge up or down those 39 steps, as I have done nearly 4000 times in the last 14 years.