This 1999 photo shows the Commodore Barry Bridge (US 322) from the abandoned Wade dump site in Chester. This location was the site of a spectacular 1978 fire, and in the years since, has been a Federal "Superfund" hazardous waste cleanup site. Officials in Delaware County recently opened Barry Bridge Park and a boat ramp on this site as part of their efforts to revitalize Chester. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
FROM FERRY TO BRIDGE: Plans for a bridge across the Delaware River between southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey date back to at least the late 1700's, when continuous ferry service began between the industrial port city of Chester and the sleepy waterfront town of Bridgeport. In 1936, the ferry became part of the national highway system when the US 322 designation was carried from Chester across the ferry into New Jersey.
The postwar era brought new demands to the highway system of southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. In 1951, the first Delaware Memorial Bridge opened to traffic between Pennsville, New Jersey and New Castle, Delaware. By the late 1950's, there remained a 30-mile gap between the Delaware River crossings in Philadelphia and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
After two years of study, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) announced plans for two new fixed crossings of the Delaware River in 1963. The more southerly of the two crossings, the proposed Chester-Bridgeport Bridge, was to offer better distribution of cross-Delaware traffic and provide better access to southern New Jersey. On the New Jersey side, the bridge was to be included in an expanded expressway network, helping to spur development in Gloucester County. On the Pennsylvania side, the bridge was to aid in the redevelopment of Chester, a city that had fallen on hard times in the postwar era.
Construction of the Chester-Bridgeport Bridge required a change in the charter of the DRPA to expand its jurisdiction into Delaware County. President Lyndon Johnson signed this change into law in 1964. Two years later, both states approved final construction plans for the bridge. In 1970, the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey submitted the bridge and its immediate approach roadways for inclusion into the Interstate highway system to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). However, the FHWA denied the request.
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: Construction of the cantilever span, now renamed the Commodore Barry Bridge (after the Revolutionary War hero and "father of the American Navy"), began early in 1969. Designed by the engineering firm E. Lionel Pavlo, Inc., the bridge featured the third-longest main cantilever span in the world at a length of 1,644 feet. Since cable-stayed bridge designs have supplanted cantilever designs for bridges of this length, it appears that the Commodore Barry Bridge will hold onto this title.
Including approaches, the bridge measures approximately 2.6 miles long. To allow ships from the port of Philadelphia-Camden to pass underneath, the bridge was constructed with a mid-span clearance of 192 feet. The bridge features a five-lane roadway without median separation, allowing for flexibility in opening lanes during peak periods.
The Commodore Barry Bridge was completed on February 1, 1974 at a cost of $115 million and two lives. The opening of the new span brought to an end more than two centuries of continuous ferry service. (Ironically, the three ferries that had served the Chester-Bridgeport route also served the Brooklyn-Staten Island route, and were earlier displaced by the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.) However, when the bridge opened, it lacked a direct connection to the Delaware Expressway (I-95) in Chester.
THE LAST FERRY AND THE FIRST DAY OF THE BRIDGE: The left photo shows the final run of the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry on February 1, 1974. The right photo shows the completed bridge from that day, just before it was opened to traffic. Both photos are shown looking west toward Chester. (Photos by Dr. Stan Smith, provided by Dave Smith.)
DEFICITS, VIBRATIONS AND CRACKS PLAGUE NEW BRIDGE: Soon after the Commodore Barry Bridge opened, John Bunting, the vice chairman of the DRPA, raised doubts about the fiscal viability of the new span. During its first month of operation, only 131,000 vehicles crossed the bridge, about half the traffic volume forecast. Bunting voiced the following concerns in an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
I was always against building the bridge down there. I thought it would be a money-loser all along. From a purely economic viewpoint, it will take a long time, if ever, for the bridge to cover its cost.
By mid-1974, another concern - this time structural - endangered the viability of the Commodore Barry Bridge. During that summer, engineers detected vibrations along the main cantilever span. Some of the vibrations were serious enough to twist the upright girders, forming cracks in some of them. Although the engineers did not believe that the vibrations threatened the overall integrity of the superstructure, they recommended that permanent measures be taken.
The DRPA undertook the following corrective measures:
splicing and welding any deficiencies in the vertical girders
installation of a network of steel support cables so that the bridge beams could withstand wind velocities of up to 70 miles per hour
Over a two-year period, the DRPA undertook these corrective measures on the Commodore Barry Bridge. Nevertheless, these measures did not appease some people, as evidenced in the following comment from Assemblyman Kenneth A. Gewertz of Gloucester County:
When I cross the bridge, I get the feeling it's wire together like a model airplane… (the public) will be paying well over $200 million overall, and has the right to know for once and for all if (the bridge) is safe.
CONTROVERSIAL CONNECTION TO I-95: For more than two years, access on the Chester side of the side was limited to ramps connecting to 9th Street (US 13). Residents of the Fairground housing development, fearing that their neighborhood would be severed, had delayed the opening of an elevated approach along Flower Street, and an interchange with the Delaware Expressway (I-95). Finally, in October 1976, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) opened the connecting ramps between the bridge and I-95 to traffic after promising to make provisions for reconnecting the neighborhood.
SPECTACULAR FIRE THREATENS BRIDGE: On February 2, 1978, fire erupted at the Eastern Rubber Reclaiming plant - also known as the "Wade Dump" - where three million gallons of hazardous chemicals, including cyanide, PCBs, benzene and toluene, were stored and dumped illegally into the Delaware River. The Commodore Barry Bridge, which stood just 100 feet above the western edge of the dump, was closed as a precaution, but did not suffer structural damage. However, the Wade Dump fire has been blamed by many for the deaths of dozens of firefighters, police officers, and medical personnel who were exposed to the smoke and fumes.
THE BRIDGE TODAY: According to the DRPA, the Commodore Barry Bridge carries approximately 35,000 vehicles (AADT) across the Delaware River each day. Traffic counts have been suppressed by the absence of the US 322 Freeway, which was to have connected the eastern approach of the bridge to I-295, the New Jersey Turnpike, the NJ 55 Freeway, and the Atlantic City Expressway.
In October 1992, one-way toll collection began on the westbound lanes, leaving the eastbound direction toll-free. On December 18, 1999, the Commodore Barry Bridge joined the EZ-Pass regional toll collection network. The DRPA has long-range plans to add two westbound EZ-Pass lanes to enable motorists to pass through the toll plaza at 45 MPH.
To improve safety, the DRPA installed a movable concrete "zipper" barrier on the bridge roadway in the fall of 2000. The barrier, which is hinged every three feet, enables a machine called a "barrier carrier" to shift the divider from one lane to another. With the barrier, roadway capacity can be optimized: three lanes in the peak direction, two lanes in the off-peak direction. The barrier can shift when a lane is taken out of service for maintenance.
In the early 2000's, the DRPA undertook the first re-decking of the Commodore Barry Bridge since it opened in 1974. The bridge deck rehabilitation project, which included improvements to the approaches (in conjunction with PennDOT and the NJDOT), was performed in three phases to minimize congestion. To accommodate traffic flow efficiently, the new moveable barrier was used such that at least three traffic lanes (two in the peak direction) were available on the bridge. The project was completed in November 2002.
PROVIDING BETTER CONNECTIONS TO DOWNTOWN CHESTER: In mid-2005, PennDOT and the DRPA announced plans to connect the Commodore Barry Bridge approach with PA 291 (Second Street) in downtown Chester. Work on the $71 million project began in 2009, and when completed in 2011, the new ramps will provide direct access to the soon-to-be-revitalized Chester waterfront from US 322 and I-95.
These 2000 photos show the westbound approach (left photo) and main span (right photo) on the Commodore Barry Bridge (US 322), after the installation of the concrete median barriers. (Photos by Jim K. Georges.)
Type of bridge: Construction started: Opened to traffic: Length of main span: Length of each side span: Length of main and side spans: Total length of bridge and approaches: Width of bridge: Width of roadway: Number of traffic lanes: Height of towers above mean high water: Clearance at center above mean high water: Structural steel used in bridge and approaches: Foundation type: Cost of original structure:
SOURCES: 1985 Regional Transportation Plan, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (1969); "Bridge Promises Brighter Life for Poor of Chester" by Robert A. Reilly, The Philadelphia Inquirer (5/24/1970); "Report on the Status of the Federal-Aid Highway Program," Committee on Public Works, U.S. Senate (1970); "Bridge Builders Put Life on Line" by Larry Williams, The Philadelphia Inquirer (12/24/1972); "Ross, Barry Bridges Proposed" by Richard Deasy, Philadelphia Daily News (1/16/1973); "Commodore Barry Bridge To Open," The Philadelphia Inquirer (1/27/1974); "Bridgeport-Chester Bridge Opens, Replacing Ferry," The New York Times (2/02/1974); "Bridge Won't Pay, Bunting Now Says" by Terry Taylor, The Philadelphia Inquirer (3/27/1974); "Vibrations and Cracks Plague Barry Bridge" by Carlo M. Sardella, The New York Times (7/21/1974); "Dispute Over I-95 Ramp Ends" by Bob Frump, The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/30/1976); "Beyond the Flames" by Susan Q. Stranahan and Larry King, The Philadelphia Inquirer (4/30/2000); "Business Link" by Daniele Cruz, The Gloucester County Times (2/16/2004); "Chester Hoping Highway Ramps Can Deliver Prosperity," WPVI-TV (8/09/2005); "Barry Bridge Work Slated," The Delaware County Daily Times (7/03/2009); "On Betsy Ross, EZ-Pass To Get Even Easier" by Paul Nussbaum, The Philadelphia Inquirer (8/19/2009); Delaware River Port Authority; New Jersey Department of Transportation; Pennsylvania Department of Transportation; Scott Kozel; Alex Nitzman; Scott Oglesby; Sandy Smith; Christof Spieler; Jeff Taylor.
US 322 shield by Scott Colbert. Commodore Barry Bridge shield by Delaware River Port Authority. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.