Lower Merion is poised to pursue a $500,000 state grant to help refurbish the Manayunk Bridge as a trans-Schuylkill connector for bicyclists and pedestrians, but township officials have yet to figure out how to pony up their own $500,000 to match it, as the grant application requires.
The obsolete railroad bridge that angles across the river between Bala Cynwyd and Manayunk, just east of the Belmont Avenue vehicle span, would connect the months-old Cynwyd Heritage Trail to trails on the Philadelphia side as well as Manayunk’s Main Street, if an estimated $2.5 million renovation is completed.
Philadelphia has kicked in a $1.3 million development grant, said Chris Leswing, the township’s assistant director of building and planning, at Wednesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting. If Lower Merion gets $500,000 from the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and matches it locally, project supporters are very likely to make up the remaining funding gap of roughly $200,000, Leswing predicted.
The commissioners on Wednesday authorized township staff to work on the grant application, due in early April, but postponed to March 21 the decision on where the $500,000 local match should come from.
Commissioners made several suggestions, including asking Montgomery County for money and asking Philadelphia for more. The township also realized a $6.9 million business tax revenue in the fall and has yet to designate a use for it.
Required construction would include resurfacing the bridge, building and reinforcing fences of varying heights, and establishing parking and access for the disabled on the Manayunk side.
“We hope that this would be easy to maintain and easy to build,” Leswing said. He added that to keep grant financing intact, the full $2.5 million (no matter where it comes from) must be in place by year’s end.
'Momentum of the trail'
Supporters of the trail project urged commissioners to complete the grant application—and, eventually, the bridge renovation—one way or another.
“If your goal is to make this a better place for residents to live, I think there’s no doubt the trail has done that,” said Bala Cynwyd resident Drew Ries. “And extending the trail furthers that mission. It’s become a hope and desire of the entire community for the bridge to open, and to some extent an expectation.”
Ries bought a home in 2007 next to what is now the trail, he said: “Quite frankly, I would not have bought it if there was no prospect of there being a trail. I had no interest in buying next to an abandoned railway.”
Selene George, president of the Friends of Cynwyd Heritage Trail nonprofit, said its hundreds of members have racked up thousands of hours helping to build, clean, landscape and maintain the former railroad right-of-way. She asked the commissioners to “go with the momentum of the trail. ... Let us be a partner with you and build the best trail we can.”
The “spirit” of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail effort that unfolded in 2011 has spread across the river, said Kay Sykora of the Manayunk Development Corporation. She reported progress in trail construction on the Philadelphia side and registered her support for the bridge project.
“Thank you for your interest and your excitement, and I just want to add our interest and our excitement to that,” Sykora said.
'Bang for our buck'
Commissioner Scott Zelov (Bryn Mawr-Haverford), chairman of the Parks and Recreation Committee, suggested lobbying Montgomery County to help pay the local match to the grant: “This is a regional landmark, a regional trail and a connection to not only the city but the county trail system. County participation seems to me to be essential.”
Fellow Republican Jenny Brown (Gladwyne-Penn Valley) said she was dismayed Philadelphia wasn’t putting up tax revenue for its share, rather than all grant receipts, to demonstrate a more serious commitment.
“I’d like to see Philadelphia actually have real dollars on the table, and I would like to see the township not lease Philadelphia’s side,” Brown said. Lower Merion will lease the entire bridge, which is owned by SEPTA.
Leswing said of Philadelphia, “They had that $1.3 million grant (previously) allocated to other projects. … Their participation has helped to leverage other money.”
Board President Liz Rogan (Wynnewood) mentioned the possibility of tapping into the recently acquired surplus and stressed the importance of following through with the application: “I don’t think we’ll ever have an opportunity like this again. We’re going to get a huge bang for our buck.”
Bala Cynwyd commissioners George Manos, Paul McElhaney and Brian McGuire all voiced their support for strongly pursuing the grant, with Manos saying the existing Cynwyd Heritage Trail already "has become such an important asset to the township."
Before the bridge discussion, the board, with far less debate, approved the receipt of $275,000 from PennDOT to cancel a shortfall in the project budget for renovations to the Cynwyd train station. Years of delay drove up costs above the original $350,000 budget, Leswing said, but the state agreed to take the hit.
The renovations will include ramps to the station from both sides of the tracks and connections to the south end of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, including vehicular access.