"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 10, 2015

Want Bridgeport To Be Like Conshohocken? Here’s How. (Part I: In The Realm of Theory)

On May 29th, I wrote about a road project currently underway to connect Lafayette Street in Norristown to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and how it represents a new opportunity to correct an old mistake.  I also pointed out that a section of Plymouth Township and even Conshohocken could also benefit.  So here’s my question: Why not add Bridgeport to those towns being helped?

Okay, I think I already know the answer: money.  But let’s just skip over that, and other, pesky details, and proceed with a proposal to remake Bridgeport, safe in the knowledge that no one is going to pay any attention to it.  PennDOT will not follow up on this idea, because it is so obvious I am sure it has already been studied—and put on a very back burner—before. 

Thus what I am going to write about lies “in the realm of theory,” which is a polite way of saying “pipedream.”  Of course, I don’t waste my time or yours with pipedreams, so this really isn’t about Bridgeport as it is about a much larger point, about “change,” a history subject near and dear to my heart. 

The major point about CHANGE: Whether change is good or bad depends on your relationship to what is being changed.  Therefore, ALL change is both good and bad; it just depends on whether your ox is being fed or gored.  We call it progress, but that’s a net judgment.  We just forget about the losers that change created.  The automobile revolution brought about a change in transportation that everyone refers to as “progress,” but I’ll bet that wheelwrights and buggy whip manufacturers were not pleased.  What does this have to do with Bridgeport?  Let me explain.

If you want to change a Bridgeport into a Conshohocken, focus on ACCESS TO TRANSPORTATION.  Conshohocken possesses quite close connections to two major, limited access highways, and that is why it is thriving.  Bridgeport has U.S. Rt. 202 (and not really that, as Rt. 202 follows the Dannehower Bridge over, not through, the borough).  

When the current project is completed, Lafayette Street will offer both Norristown and a section of Plymouth Township what looks like quick access to the Turnpike.  Conshohocken could benefit also, as the project basically offers borough residents an alternative to the Matsonford bridge and road route to the Turnpike (I have heard that there is some congestion along that route at certain times of the day).  In order to benefit Bridgeport, an exit off Lafayette Street needs to be constructed, along with a new Ford Street Bridge.

Please understand that I possess absolutely no qualifications to design anything like I am writing about.  Then again, if I keep to generalities and avoid those pesky details, I can at least offer a proposal, because I have a secret resource.  It’s called “history.”  What I will describe is really little more than history recreated.

The basic idea is to rebuild a route that existed back in colonial times, managed to survive into the 20th century, then closed down.  Bridgeport basically began at a shallow section of the Schuylkill River known as “Swedes Ford.”  The ford allowed people, animals and wagons to cross the river, at least most of the time.  Swedesford Road headed south from this crossing.  Early Bridgeport developed from this site until the DeKalb Street Bridge opened in 1824.  That reoriented Bridgeport to the west, and the ford fell into disuse.  A railroad bridge was built at the old ford in 1848, one that allowed people to walk across.  It burned down in 1883, as a replacement bridge did again in 1924, just after the DeKalb Street Bridge itself burned.  New bridges were built at both locations.  The new Ford Street Bridge carried vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians.  It remained a “private” bridge, and still charged people to cross, earning it the nickname of “the penny bridge”.  It deteriorated from lack of maintenance and was finally torn down in 1939.

I am not talking about just a new bridge.  That would only connect Bridgeport to the new road, and that is not going to be enough.  Imagine making a pitch to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that goes something like the following: “We’d like you to spend millions of dollars to build a bridge that connects the Turnpike to a stagnant river town of about 4,500 people.”  Good luck with that.  If you only focus on Bridgeport, the best you will get is polite nods, providing you can get a meeting in the first place.

You need to think larger, and employ a phrase like “regional transportation solution.”  That type of thing is easy to get behind.  You definitely want to trumpet the opportunity to revitalize an old town, but as a side benefit, another reason to undertake the project, but not the major one.  

The key here is actually simple (if you ignore the details): rebuild Ford Street in Bridgeport from the new bridge to its intersection with Rt. 202.  You can’t just dump people off a bridge onto Bridgeport’s streets as they now exist.  By upgrading Ford Street you create a connection to King of Prussia.  With the traffic congestion around the Expressway/Turnpike intersection, I believe many people in western King of Prussia would see the new route as an easier way to the Turnpike.  That makes this a “regional transportation solution.”  In that vein, and in search of another constituency, let's add a protected bike lane on both Ford Street and the bridge, with a direct connection to the Schuylkill River Trail.  That can't hurt.

Once this project is completed, property values near it will begin to rise, the large new project already proposed by Brian O’Neill could get a new life, and other developers will begin to look at the area.  This new connection will not rival Conshohocken’s, and thus the development that follows will certainly be less.  For a town the size of Bridgeport, that makes sense.

The change may not be as large, but it is likely to be as fundamental as that taking place in the Conshohockens right now.  So, property values will rise, new housing will be built, new residents will settle in town, and if things work out well, maybe even an office building or two.  What’s not to like?

Remember what I said above about CHANGE; some bad always accompanies the good, and this concept is no exception.  I will break my every-two week posting cycle to write about the other side to this idea next week, because there definitely is one, and it should be considered.