A bridge demolition was a headache in the Lehigh Valley. The infrastructure bill will fix it & more

A new Fifth Street Bridge is among the projects being funded by the $1.2T Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov. 15

By: - January 11, 2022 11:13 am

A fence stands where the demolished Fifth Street Bridge used to cross Route 22 in Whitehall Township. The bridge will be rebuilt with money from President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Capital-Star photo by Katherine Reinhard).

By Katherine Reinhard

For Ronia Makdessi, heading home from her receptionist job at Whitehall Dental Associates in Whitehall Township, just outside Allentown, is always a gamble.     

Makdessi could head south on Fifth Street, turn right onto Fairmont Avenue, then head north on MacArthur Road, a trip fraught with heavy traffic and long waits at traffic signals.

 “I hate to take MacArthur Road after work. It’s just so busy,” she said.

Or Makdessi could head east on Pershing Boulevard, wait at the stop sign for traffic to clear on the busy Fullerton Avenue, and then hold her breath as she turns left.

 “It’s dangerous,” she said.

What she can’t do is head north on Fifth Street, the fastest way home.

That’s because the Pennsylvania Department of  Transportation closed the Fifth Street Bridge, which crossed Route 22, in 2017 then tore it down as part of a widening project on Route 22.

Fifth Street now abruptly ends on either side of Route 22 with red-and-white fences blocking cars from going any farther.  

But Makdessi’s travel headache won’t last forever. 

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Building a new Fifth Street Bridge is among the projects being funded with money from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov. 15. 

Pennsylvania is slated to receive $11.3 billion for federal-aid highway apportioned programs and $1.6 billion for bridge replacement, according to a congressional  analysis. 

The share in Lehigh and Northampton counties over the five-year period is expected to be about $380 million, Becky Bradley, the executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, told the Capital-Star.

Though she couldn’t provide an exact figure, Bradley said the amount is larger than what the Lehigh Valley received in federal dollars under former President Barack Obama’s Fixing America Surface Transportation Act, which expired on Sept. 30

But it’s lower than the 50-plus percent increase that alternative and surface transportation projects are receiving in the bill that is $550 billion larger than Obama’s  FAST Act. Still, if the bickering Congress had failed to pass a new infrastructure bill, there wouldn’t have been any federal money to fix roads and bridges and all projects would have been halted, Bradley said.

Now there is enough to ensure projects like the Fifth Street bridge replacement, which is scheduled to go out on bid, as planned, in April 2024.

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 “We [also] were able to consider adding a few new projects,” Bradley said.

 One such project now in the funding pipeline is redoing the interchange at Route 309 and Tilghman Street in South Whitehall Township, an Allentown suburb.

Bradley called it a “bad safety issue, but one that had only undergone preliminary engineering studies. Now it is scheduled to go for bid in October and be completed by December 2025.

“Without that federal infrastructure bill, we wouldn’t have had money for its construction,” she said. 

 Other items now moving up in priority include:

  •  Improving the interchange at Route 191 and Route 22, which Bradley described as “very old” and needing modernizing to make it safer. No date has been attached to the project as of yet.
  •  Conducting a new Route 22 corridor study to plan future upgrades along the thoroughfare, which is one of two major east-west arteries in the Valley. The last study was done 15 years ago and lots has changed along the route, Bradley said.
  • With federal approval, establishing an emergency fund to rebuild or repair county- and local-owned bridges. Bradley noted the Lehigh Valley has had hurricanes and tropical storms that have knocked out bridges, leaving municipalities with no money to quickly rebuild them.

Bradley said the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study, an offshoot of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission that prioritizes road and bridge projects, had to work fast to come up with its new 2023-26 Transportation Improvement Program list

The group huddled twice for several hours in mid-December and is now awaiting the federal sign-off.  

Meanwhile, in Whitehall, having the Fifth Street Bridge rebuilt will make it easier to get around the township of about 27,700 residents.

The township is physically divided by Route 22, and now only has two easily accessible ways of crossing from one side to the other – the MacArthur Road and Fullerton Avenue bridges.

The now-demolished Fifth Street Bridge offered a way to get across without all the traffic. It was highly popular with pedestrians.

It also provided a way for emergency vehicles to access the southern part of the township. And the bridge led directly into Allentown.

Lehigh County Executive Phil Armstrong, a Whitehall resident and a former township commissioner, is happy that the bridge has been moved up the list.

 “Yes, we got the money for the bridge in the bill. It has been approved. We lobbied very hard for that,” Armstrong, who serves on the LVTS, said in an email.

Among those who’s also happy about the money being secured is John Gross, owner of Better Homes & Garden Cassidon Realty on the north side of Fifth Street.

 “If that is the case, good,” he said.

 Gross can see the fencing where the former bridge stood from his office.

 “Not having the bridge there really cuts us off,” Gross said. “We used to get a lot more [foot] traffic in our building than we do now.”

Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers Allentown and the Lehigh Valley for the Capital-Star. Readers may follow her on Twitter @KMReinhard.

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Katherine Reinhard
Katherine Reinhard

Katherine Reinhard, a veteran journalist, is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Lehigh Valley Correspondent and a co-editor of Armchair Lehigh Valley, a Substack newsletter focused on politics in the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton region.