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Council approves additional funds for controversial bike bridge

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Paper Mill Road bike bridge

An updated artist’s rendering shows the pedestrian and bicycle bridge that will be built over White Clay Creek near the Paper Mill Road vehicular bridge.

City council last week approved up to $273,000 in additional funding for the controversial bicycle and pedestrian bridge over White Clay Creek.

The July 8 vote marked the second time council has increased funding for the bridge, which has doubled in cost since it was first approved in 2015.

City officials and bike advocates say the bridge is crucial for making Paper Mill Road more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, but the bridge has become a lightning rod for critics who use it as an example of government waste.

Last estimated at $1.75 million, the project’s cost is now expected to surpass $2 million, though the exact amount won’t be known until the project goes out for bid, according to Newark Parks and Recreation Director Joe Spadafino.

He attributed the increase to rising steel prices due to tariffs as well as necessary design changes.

Engineers initially planned to use a temporary pier to construct the bridge, but that plan was not approved by environmental agencies. Instead, the bridge will be built on Paper Mill Road and lifted into place by a crane, which is expensive. A floodplain study also forced engineers to raise the bridge 1.5 feet, meaning increased costs for abutments.

While most of the project is funded by federal and state grants, it likely will fall to Newark to cover at least some of the increases. Spadafino said the city is applying for more grants but asked that council approve the additional funds in case the grants are not received.

The bridge, named for former parks and recreation director Charles Emerson, is part of a broader plan to improve the area surrounding the former Curtis Paper Mill site. It will be built just to the west of the vehicular Paper Mill Road bridge over White Clay Creek, near Timothy’s of Newark.

The vehicular bridge has a narrow sidewalk that is unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Building a separate bridge will provide safer passage and connect Newark’s downtown with neighborhoods and trails north of the creek, officials said.

The project 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, but the estimate was later raised to $1.75 million, mostly because of the additional engineering and environmental permits needed to build a bridge over the creek, which is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

In September 2017, city council balked at paying the extra $750,000 and killed the project only to revive it a week later after then-Mayor Polly Sierer lined up contributions from New Castle County, local state legislators and the University of Delaware.

The county and legislators recently kicked in another $20,000.

The increase approved last week brings Newark’s total share of the cost up to around $500,000, unless more grants are received.

“We’re basically leveraging $1 for every $4 we’re receiving,” said Councilman Stu Markham, who personally donated $1,000 toward the project. “I think it’s still a worthwhile investment for the city. We find money for other projects without matches and state grants.”

Mayor Jerry Clifton, who as a councilman cast the lone opposing vote in 2017, voted for the funding this time – but not without some consternation.

“It didn’t take a finance major to figure out this was going to go up,” Clifton said. “This is what I’m afraid people see in government, that it’s no big deal. And it is a really big deal.”

The additional funding passed unanimously, with Councilwoman Sharon Hughes absent.

The city could have saved $139,000 by reducing the width of the bridge from 12 feet to 10 feet, among other changes, but council decided against that plan.

“I’d prefer to do it the way it was originally promised,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said.

If council had cancelled the project now, the city would have been required to reimburse the Delaware Department of Transportation for the approximately $377,000 that has already been spent on design work and environmental studies, Spadafino said.

Construction is slated to begin in spring 2020.

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