Residents call on state to rebuild a scenic span

The omnipresent thunder of nearby I-295 aside, the spot where the picturesque Centerton Bridge crosses the Rancocas Creek feels old-fashioned, even timeless.

But South Jersey's suburbs continue growing on both sides of the Rancocas, and time is taking a toll on the 112-year-old span connecting Mount Laurel and Willingboro.

In April, following an inspection, Burlington County abruptly and indefinitely barred all traffic from the bridge. About 14,000 vehicles a day are being detoured onto 295.


"Safety has to be paramount," says county spokesman Eric Arpert, noting that Centerton's reconstruction could cost $15 million. That's as much, he adds, as the county spends annually to maintain its 300-plus bridges.

So the narrow, two-lane, rusty-looking Centerton span - a shortcut that's scenic, but not for the faint of heart - eventually may reopen only for pedestrians and bicyclists.

And that prospect angers Lori Howard, who has organized a "Rebuild the Centerton Bridge" group on Facebook.


Bolstered by nearly 800 "likes" and counting, group members say they plan to speak out at Wednesday's freeholder meeting.

"Why isn't this bridge a priority? There are residents who use it and pay taxes. But their needs are not even being considered," says Howard, 43.

An educational program developer who lives in Mount Laurel, she would like to continue using the bridge when visiting friends and family in Willingboro, her hometown.

"It should be fixed," says Preston Curry, an educator whom I meet while going door-to-door chatting with residents of Willingboro's Twin Hills section. The development is bordered by the main road to the bridge.

"Absolutely. As soon as possible," adds his neighbor, Michael Nicholas, 57, a New York City subway engineer.

Says retired teacher Pamela C. Coles, 72, of Moorestown, a member of Howard's Facebook group, "they just need to get this bridge repaired and back in operation. They don't need to overbuild it."

The existing "swing" bridge (a portion of it rotates so large vessels can pass through) is the third on the site. The first was built in 1832, when the Rancocas was a busy commercial waterway, the historian Paul Schopp says.

Although popular with commuters, the now-closed bridge has been deteriorating for years and was shut down for repairs for more than a month in 2010.

A permanent shutdown also has been considered - Schopp says the number of lanes was expanded from six to eight on the nearby stretch of 295 in anticipation of such a decision decades ago.

But while he agrees that limiting the bridge to pedestrians and cyclists could be a preservation tool, "I'd like to see it reopened for traffic," Schopp says. "I've always enjoyed driving over it."

Politicians also seem beguiled by the Centerton span, making it something of a poster child in their campaign to persuade Gov. Christie to replenish the state's Transportation Trust Fund.

Last September, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) held a news conference there during a statewide tour of structurally deficient bridges.

Centerton's closure, Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) says, "is indicative of a larger issue."

I agree. But with or without an eventual trust fund bailout, can the Centerton's future be considered separately from the larger issue of the county's 300 other bridges?

The Centerton is hardly majestic, but it's got charm. And unlike 295, which towers above the creek, the modest span offers travelers a much closer view of the water.

Ending up in the water is no one's goal, needless to say, and making the Centerton safe won't be cheap. The county has many transportation needs and not enough money.

Still, the freeholders ought not to make a final decision without considering local custom, commuter convenience, and community sentiment.

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