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The Rail Bridge over Letchworth Park: Should it stay or go… or both?

January 2nd, 2013

The Portageville Bridge over Letchworth State Park looking south from the Middle/Upper Falls Picnic Area. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The Portageville Bridge which carries the Norfolk Southern railroad over the Genesee River in Letchworth State Park was built in 1875 after a fire destroyed the former wooden bridge. The steel frame bridge, which towers over the river gorge and its waterfalls, has become a beloved feature of the park and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. But a 2008 inspection external link by Modjeski and Masters external link revealed structural deficiencies, and it was determined that the current bridge should either be rehabilitated or replaced. The question is what to do with the old bridge once a new one is built. State officials are now soliciting comments from the public on three different options…

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) external link has already been prepared and construction alternatives for a new bridge have been narrowed down to three.

OPTION 1: Do nothing…

The Portageville Bridge over Letchworth State Park looking south from the Middle/Upper Falls Picnic Area. [PHOTO: Provided by NYSDOT]
Since the existing bridge is near the end of its useful life, this is not really an option. But the State requires a “No Action” alternative to serve as sort of a baseline from which to evaluate all other options. Here’s a view (shown above) of the existing bridge looking south from the Middle/Upper Falls Picnic Area. And another view (below) looking from Park Road on the west side of the Genesse River…

View of the Portageville Bridge from Park Road on the west side of the Genesse River. [PHOTO: Provided by NYSDOT]

OPTION 2: Remove the old bridge and build a new one…

Proposed design for new Portageville Bridge (looking south from the Middle/Upper Falls Picnic Area). [RENDERING: Provided by NYSDOT]
The new bridge would be set on a parallel alignment south of the existing bridge. It would also be of comparable dimensions — 485 feet long and about 245 feet above the river. But the new bridge would not have any piers set into the river. It would instead be a spandrel-braced arch bridge spanning over the gorge with the supports located on the east and west banks of the river (shown above). The use of an arch bridge could provide a more expansive view of the surrounding landscape.

Here’s the view from Park Road again, this time with the new bridge design…

View of the proposed new Portageville Bridge (from Park Road). [RENDERING: Provided by NYSDOT]

OPTION 3: Keep the old bridge and build a new one next to it…

A third alternative to doing nothing or demolishing the old bridge; keep the old bridge and build a new one next to it. [RENDERING: Provided by NYSDOT]
This option may seem crazy, but let’s consider it for a moment. The following excerpt is taken from the DEIS external link:

There has historically only been one bridge crossing the Genesee River in this location since 1850. The presence of two bridge structures would, while retaining the original contributing aesthetic resource, result in greater impacts to the visual character of Letchworth State Park than the alternative where the Project results in only one bridge crossing. The presence of two bridges would interfere with sensitive viewer vistas of the Upper and Middle Falls and the Genesee River gorge, as two bridge structures would tend to dominate the views and detract from aesthetics of the natural landscape, including the forested gorge walls and the waterfalls. Moreover, the presence of a second bridge would also interfere with views of the existing bridge, significantly and adversely changing viewers’ perceptions of the existing bridge.

Point taken. However, the study also mentions an intriguing idea to convert the old bridge into a pedestrian walkway, and the benefits of doing so:

If ownership of the existing bridge is conveyed to a suitable new owner and the existing bridge is used for pedestrian access, it is anticipated that fewer park patrons may trespass on the new railroad bridge. For alternatives…under which the existing bridge will be removed, the DEIS will evaluate the feasibility of accommodating pedestrians on the new bridge and/or the installation of heightened security measures, such as fencing and automated gates that open when a train approaches to deter Park patrons from trespassing on the new bridge.

The old rail bridge could be converted to a pedestrian bridge similar to this walkway over the Hudson River. [PHOTO: Julian Colton, Wikimedia Commons]
Donald Pevsner, transportation lawyer and former columnist for Universal Press Syndicate, is urging the public and law-makers external link to take this option seriously. He points to the successful Walkway Over the Hudson external link as an example where increased tourism income from that landmark structure is now revitalizing the local economy of Poughkeepsie, NY.

I have to admit, I’m torn. On the one hand I think this 135 year-old engineering marvel should remain for future generations to see. Plus, a new, safe walkway for pedestrians would be really amazing! On the other hand, I’m not so in love with the way the new bridge and the old bridge look together, side by side. What do you all think?

Submit Your Comments:

NYSDOT will select a final alternative based on the findings of the DEIS and public comments. Comments are due Friday, February 1, 2013 at the address below:

Raymond F. Hessinger, P.E.
Director, Freight & Passenger Rail Bureau
New York State Department of Transportation
50 Wolf Road, POD 54
Albany, New York 12232

-or-

PortagevilleBridge@dot.ny.gov

A public hearing on the project is also scheduled for January 10 at 6 p.m. at the Genesee River Restaurant and Reception Center external link in Mount Morris (with a snow date set for 1/17 at the same time and location). Renderings and maps will be displayed and project representatives will be on hand to answer questions before the hearing, beginning at 4:30 p.m.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013 at 8:00 am and is filed under Rochester Images, Rochester News, Train/Railroad Stuff, Transit + Infrastructure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Rail Bridge over Letchworth Park: Should it stay or go… or both?”

  1. twoeightnine says:

    New bridge. Upper level for trains, a lower level pedestrian walkway beneath it. Or the other way around. Or maybe the pedestrian part curves out and away from the train.

  2. Ben Giardina says:

    Leave it there. Stop tearing down history

  3. Dick H. says:

    The old bridge is so dangerous that trains can’t go over it any faster than 10mph. Two bridges would look terrible. A walkway under the RR bridge would be nice but the State doesn’t own the property on the other side of the river nor do they own the bridge.

  4. Greg T. says:

    As someone from Poughkeepsie who has walked the bridge, BOTH! History and practicality that will draw people to the location and serve as a testament to the culture and architectural of a time forgotten.

  5. Renee says:

    That bridge is so iconic for the park. I like the idea of leaving the old one there and converting it to a pedestrian bridge. Like many of you, I’m not crazy about the new one behind the old one, though. So I’m super torn. I really dig the idea of a pedestrian bridge and think it would be a draw for many people (I’m not sure what the likelihood is that they’d actually incorporate a pedestrian bridge with the new design — Mike, do you have any intel on that?). Harpers Ferry in VA has a working rail bridge with a pedestrian bridge that connects the C&O trail system for bikers/hikers/runners. It’s super awesome. And an adrenaline rush when the trains whiz by.

  6. @Renee, I don’t have any info on the likelihood of a walkway component added to the new rail bridge. But I know that additional money would need to come from somewhere. And rail companies like Norfolk Southern are not typically fond of the idea of providing site-seeing access for pedestrians. But the state is also required to mitigate the loss of the historic bridge, so if they hear enough comments about it anything could happen.

  7. Charles Walker says:

    In my opinion, the old bridge should be dismantled once a new bridge is put into service. To convert the old bridge to a safe pedestrian walkway over the gorge would require significant investment; then it would have to be maintained, requiring additional expense. New York State is no longer in a financial position to keep taking on obligations like that. The prospect of keeping the bridge is complicated by the fact that it’s an iron bridge, not steel. Therefore, it’s more brittle, more subject to stress from wind, ice,
    and other environmental factors.

  8. @Charles, according to Modjeski and Masters the current bridge frame is steel. Maybe the spans between the towers are iron?

  9. Charles Walker says:

    A 2010 Norfolk Southern Powerpoint Presentation on the bridge replacement project (available on line for download, but I don’t have the link handy) describes the viaduct as wrought iron, the towers as steel.

  10. That makes sense. So the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. In this case you’ve got the iron viaduct up top, as well as concrete piers at the bottom which are falling apart and aren’t reinforced. That’d make for quite the repair job.

  11. William Reddy says:

    ‘Tis a pity the beautiful old bridge must go. Two bridges does not make sense. a new bridge with a walkway ABOVE the rails would be amazing and might even be able to make some money with a reasonable fee.

  12. Sarah says:

    Don’t tear down the bridge, it’s an important part of history and needs to stay there. Although, I do think having a walkway for the people would be very interesting and will bring MORE people to see this attraction.

  13. Mike Edwards says:

    I am not fond of the idea of the new bridge in front of the old bridge. It takes away the beauty of the old bridge, and the old bridge cannot be seen in its full glory. If the new bridge could be moved behind the old bridge that would be more feasible. The cost to convert the old bridge to a safe pedestrian and bicycle walkway would be high and I have not seen any cost estimates for the project nor has anyone offered to pay for it. As much as I hate to see the bridge go, a combined train and pedestrian walkway maybe the best solution. The money for the walkway could come from historical societies and donations from those who feel it should be incorporated in the new bridge. The walkway would I hope deter people from dangerously walking the train tracks. I do hope that handicap accessibility should be considered. I doubt if the state can afford the full cost of converting the bridge to a pedestrian walkway. Maybe the rail company will pitch in some of the cost.

  14. chase tyler says:

    Well, if the new bridge looked like the old one, that would look neat. But it doesn’t, and it looks awkward. Still, it would be nice to preserve the old bridge and allow people to cross it. Conveniant, too. So I’m going with option three.

  15. Jim Martin says:

    Didn’t a train derail near the bridge a while back and dump a bunch of brand new Jaguar cars into the woods?


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