Moments after one Narberth resident remarked Wednesday night on the borough's "measured approach" to the dilemma of whether to repair and reopen an important downtown bridge that is slated for eventual demolition, the least measured and most memorable opinion of the night was heard.
"Business is hurting in Narberth. We're starving," said Tracy Tumolo, owner of the Sweet Mabel art boutique on Haverford Avenue, at the Borough Council meeting. "It's not about inconvenience—people can't get to us."
Tumolo's shop on North Narberth Avenue is one of the closest borough businesses to the Narberth Avenue bridge, which has been closed since late August after a poor PennDOT inspection, the second closure in less than a year.
With a planned demolition/replacement project looming in early 2014, borough officials are carefully contemplating whether to commit to an estimated $300,000 repair.
The bridge was the only vehicular connection between south Narberth and downtown. It is restricted to pedestrians now.
The day before the council meeting, Tumolo took to her blog to drum up support for the stopgap measure, saying many borough businesses might not survive or stick around for a bridgeless period of several years. The bridge replacement timeline is estimated to be 12 to 15 months once construction begins.
"I've talked to business owners who are looking at other properties," she said Wednesday. "I may leave. To (forgo the repairs) now and look at not opening again until 2015, I can't do it. I'll never make it."
Council members unanimously decided Wednesday to ask their engineers from Pennoni to study whether the bridge can be reasonably repaired to a condition that could support its 3-ton load limit. The study is expected to be done by about Oct. 15, after which the council plans to hold a special meeting immediately to decide whether to proceed with repairs.
The most recent time estimate for the repairs was six to eight weeks, which would keep the bridge closed through part of the holiday shopping season even in a best-case scenario.
Borough manager Bill Martin said paying for a $300,000 repair through a tax increase would require about an extra $140 on the average household's property tax bill in 2013. Other potential tax increases and decreases won't be sorted out until the annual budget takes form.
Council members debated whether it was realistic to expect Narberth Avenue's replacement process to begin on time, given the holdups with PennDOT and Amtrak on the long-planned demolition of the Rockland Avenue bridge. They also raised the unattractive possibility that they could pay $300,000 to repair the bridge, only to have PennDOT find it deficient again in six months at a required reinspection.
Councilman Bob Wegbreit identified himself as the panel's lone south side resident and said the lack of the bridge affects daily life in that neighborhood: "We find our habits changing and we're just not coming into town."
Elmwood Avenue resident Traci Baird said pedestrian accessibility will become less valuable in the coming months: "When the snow starts and it gets dark at 530, all of a sudden we become drivers to downtown Narberth."
Councilwoman Heidi Boise pointed out that the bridge will be inaccessible for more than a year while it's being replaced, so everyone might as well prepare now, marketing businesses more aggressively and making the closed bridge a location for events.
"I do think this is not the end of the world," Boise said.
South side resident Jeff Asay supported that point: "We're already finding new ways to get downtown. Any commentary that has to do with inconvenience really should be set aside. A few minutes here and there is minor compared to a quarter of a million dollar investment."
Baird, however, said she believes word has not spread far that the bridge might not reopen.
"Please don't think a finite number of emails or people at this meeting is a lack of interest," Baird said. "I think this … is just the tip of the iceberg."
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