To light or not to light? That is the burning question concerning the George C. Platt Memorial Bridge, known by some as the Passyunk Avenue Bridge.
It’s an issue that has sparked a lot of controversy as of late, along with the question of who is ultimately responsible for maintaining and installing lights on the span.
Built in 1949, the 1.7-mile bridge is a main thoroughfare and a link between I-95 near the airport, the Schuylkill Expressway and other routes to Delaware County. South Philly motorists also travel the bridge to get to Southwest Philly and vice versa.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation owns the bridge, but according to Gene Blaum, assistant press secretary for PennDOT’s regional office, the City of Philadelphia maintains and owns the lighting — or in this case, the lack thereof.
Blaum recalled that when the Platt Bridge was originally outfitted with lights, the city wanted a specific type of illumination. PennDOT advised against those lights, but the city went ahead with them anyway, said Blaum. Then, in November 1992, PennDOT received a letter from the city that stated due to severe maintenance problems, the lights were coming down.
In 1993, the city’s Streets Department took down the existing lights after it found that decades of traffic vibrations had loosened them.
According to Joseph Syrnick, chief engineer and surveyor for the City of Philadelphia, "the system was failing in a variety of ways," with some of the fixtures even falling onto the highway.
"The city decided to remove the lights without causing a safety issue," said Syrnick.
Since 1993, the Platt Bridge has remained dark.
Every few years, the issue of lighting rears its head, said Syrnick. In 1996, it did so again.
At that time, after reviewing accident statistics provided by PennDOT, the city Streets Department ruled there was no correlation between the accidents occurring on the bridge and the lack of lighting, said Syrnick.
According to recent accident statistics received from PennDOT, from 1996 through part of 2000, 83 collisions were reported on the Platt Bridge. Fifty of those occurred between 1 and 2 p.m., said Syrnick. Seventeen accidents happened at night, but on parts of various approaches to the bridge that were clearly lit by streetlights, Syrnick added.
Only 15 of the 83 accidents happened at night in parts of the bridge that had no lighting whatsoever from nearby approaches or other light sources, he said, and one accident occurred at dawn.
PennDOT District Administrator Andy Warren said the Platt Bridge carries an average of 55,000 vehicles a day. When you break down the numbers, given the volume of traffic and accident stats, the bridge is the site of about four accidents a year, noted Warren.
"It really puts into perspective what impact lights may or may not have. We’re talking about four or five crashes a year. I’m not in any way diminishing those crashes, but I am not convinced that lights will dramatically impact the number of crashes a year," said Warren.
The state and city agree on the issue.
"Based on the data we have, we don’t believe that there is any correlation between accidents and lack of lights," said Syrnick.
Still, a lack of illumination for motorists isn’t the Platt Bridge’s only problem.
The government-mandated red lights that warn pilots away from the bridge stopped working a few months ago.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires red warning lights on any structure more than 200 feet high.
Located less than 2 miles northeast of Philadelphia International Airport, the steel-trussed Platt Bridge towers just about 200 feet above ground.
According to FAA guidelines issued in August 2000, prominent bridges such as the Platt are supposed to have "steady burning" red hazard lights on the highest point at each end of the bridge visible from any direction.
Any light outage lasting more than 30 minutes should be reported immediately, according to the guidelines.
According to Arlene Salac, FAA Eastern Region spokesperson, the latest review of the Platt Bridge was in the 1990s. That study indicated the bridge needed aviation hazard lights, she said.
"The FAA looks to the owner of the property, in this case PennDOT, to install and maintain the lights. Whatever arrangement [PennDOT] makes with the city doesn’t matter. As far as the FAA is concerned, PennDOT is responsible for the bridge," said Salac.
She added the FAA has no regulatory authority to force the owner to comply.
Both Blaum and Warren maintained that while PennDOT indeed owns the bridge, under state law, the city is responsible for the lighting. Asked if this was the case, Syrnick said, "Yeah, that’s probably true."
Salac claimed the FAA was unaware that the aviation lights on the bridge had been out for several months. She said in that situation, whenever a pilot enters the flight zone around the Platt Bridge, he would get a notice from Philly International air traffic control that the aviation warning lights are out.
City Council President Anna Verna called a meeting last Thursday with city, state and federal officials to discuss how the city can restore both sets of lights to the bridge.
Verna’s office referred calls concerning the Platt Bridge to City Council Chief Financial Officer Charlie McPherson.
"Clearly, the high priority is lack of aviation lights," said McPherson, adding, "The Council president is very interested in this [lighting] issue because it’s in her district."
At the meeting, the city proposed hiring a private consulting firm to conduct an independent investigation, said Warren.
The city already has a ballpark figure on the cost.
"As of [last Thursday], the City of Philadelphia and PennDOT are saying this would cost $1.5 to $2 million to design a system to light the bridge," said Syrnick.
Warren concurred with the city’s chief engineer, who added the bridge would need to be rewired and fitted with new fixtures designed to withstand the traffic vibrations of the bridge.
"As far as the lighting is concerned, PennDOT is just a bystander. We don’t have anything to do with lighting the bridge," said Warren. "What we have said we would do, as the owners of the bridge, is we would work with the city and the FAA to provide highway safety."