Under normal circumstances, Bob Licolli sells about 3,000 gallons of gasoline per day at his Sunoco service station on Holme Circle at Ashton Road.
But when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on June 20 ordered the emergency closing of the Holme Avenue Bridge just east of his location, Licolli lost between 700 to 1,000 gallons in daily sales.
Licolli’s business is one of many that have been and are expected to be negatively affected by a new detour, which is already into effect but remains in development as state and local traffic engineers try to figure out on-the-fly how to re-route more than 22,000 vehicles a day around the bridge reconstruction project. Dozens of area residents are also feeling the effects.
On June 29, about 40 community members attended a special meeting of the Holme Circle Civic Association as PennDOT officials and a construction contractor responded to questions about why the bridge was closed without prior notice and how authorities hope to mitigate the blow to neighbors.
The questions greatly outnumbered the definitive answers.
“Normally, traffic detours take years [to plan]. This is an emergency situation,” said John Buckley of Buckley and Company, the general contractor chosen by PennDOT to complete the bridge reconstruction project.
As reported in June 23 editions of the Northeast Times, a long-ago planned rehab of the 92-year-old, four-lane motor vehicle bridge began in November and was supposed to continue through July 2012. The bridge carries Holme Avenue over a freight railroad about three blocks east of Holme Circle.
The original plan was for crews to work on two lanes at a time, with the other two lanes remaining open to traffic (one lane in each direction).
PennDOT announced the emergency closing on the morning of June 20 and began rerouting traffic early that afternoon. The state agency cited worsening cracks in the pilings and deck of the concrete, I-beam structure.
ldquo;We became afraid — and we had inspectors look at the bridge — that the whole bridge was going to collapse,” Javier Salgueiro, PennDOT’s resident engineer, said at last week’s meeting.
“It had to close and it had to be done short-term,” PennDOT project manager Howard Windisch said.
In addition to cracks, inspectors observed shifting in the stacked blocks that comprise the bridge’s abutments, Buckley explained. The blocks rely on gravity to maintain their position and are not reinforced by steel bars.
Neighbors asked why inspectors or work crews hadn’t noticed the imminent danger earlier, specifically in advance of construction.
“[Inspectors] were aware of the abutment crack, but since the last inspection, which was a few years ago, it has widened,” Windisch said.
Meanwhile, the project manager added, crews had spent most of the early months of the project doing utility work underneath the bridge along the railroad, not on the bridge itself.
As of last week’s meeting, virtually all of the bridge’s deck had been removed, Buckley said.
The updated schedule will have crews working to rebuild the abutments and deck six days a week, about 10 hours a day, so the project could be finished by the end of this year. The cost of the $5.9 million project is not expected to increase significantly due to the schedule change, Windisch said.
Late last week, motorists were still getting used to the detour, while neighbors were demanding additional signage and possible route reconfiguration.
The official detour diverts westbound traffic at the Willits Road and Holme Avenue intersection. Vehicles are directed along Willits Road, which becomes Welsh Road before intersecting with Roosevelt Boulevard.
Eastbound vehicles are diverted at the Boulevard and Holme Avenue. They are directed northbound on the Boulevard before turning right onto Welsh Road and continuing via Willits Road back to Holme Avenue.
In keeping with PennDOT policy, all detour routes are state-owned roads.
Licolli, the Sunoco/Ashton Road Automotive owner, wants PennDOT to direct cars back to Holme Circle via Ashton Road. But Ashton is a city street, not a state-owned road. Trucks, Licolli said, would have to stay on the state-owned routes.
“Just so you know, this is my life. This is my bread and butter,” Licolli said. “This is affecting me drastically.”
Licolli has laid off one daytime employee because of his lost revenue.
PennDOT officials said they have been in discussions with city traffic engineers about modifying the Ashton and Willits intersection to accommodate more traffic volume. Retiming traffic lights, adding a left-turn lane on Willits and moving stop bars farther back from the intersection are under consideration.
Officials have yet to determine if the intersection is wide enough to handle SEPTA bus traffic.
Meanwhile, officials are trying to get additional signs erected to inform motorists that businesses along Holme Avenue remain open, despite the detour.
Two public schools are directly impacted by the detour: Thomas Holme Elementary at Academy and Willits roads; and Pollock Elementary on Welsh Road, just north of Holme Circle.
One Willits Road resident reported that a “No Turn On Red” sign outside of Holme Elementary had been torn down and should be replaced.
“In August, we’re going to be coordinating with the [public] school district,” Windisch said.
One woman suggested erecting stop signs at Willits and Wesleyan roads to slow traffic on Willits between Holme and Convent Avenue.
“I know speed was an issue on Holme and it could be an issue on Willits,” Windisch said.
Neighbors closest to the work zone, those living on Holme Avenue, Lewin Place, Joey Drive and Arthur Street, have big problems.
Many motorists ignore the signs at both ends of the detour and continue on Holme Avenue until they reach the work site. When they can’t proceed further, they turn onto residential side streets looking for an outlet.
“They come down a 500-foot cul-de-sac at sixty miles per hour and when they get to the end, they get even madder,” one man said.
Drivers tend to follow one another down the side streets, regardless of the signage. Many even stop to ask directions from neighbors.
Meanwhile, neighbors are also worried about access for emergency responders. Days before the meeting, a fire destroyed a home on Longford Street. The local fire station is at Roosevelt Boulevard and Holme Avenue, on the opposite side of the closed bridge from Longford.
Buckley, the general contractor, said that he met with local fire engine and medic companies, along with police, to determine their coverage responsibilities in consideration of the bridge closing. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org