The Bridge Commission is making preparations for a rehabilitation/improvement project at the agency’s iconic Northampton Street Toll-Supported Bridge between Easton, PA, and Phillipsburg, N.J. The bridge is colloquially referred to as the “free bridge” to distinguish it from the Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge (previously the Bushkill Street Bridge) a short distance upstream.  The Northampton Street Bridge was last rehabilitated nearly 20 years ago.

The project’s core objective is to extend the 125-year-old bridge’s useful life, mitigating major repairs that could necessitate protracted bridge closures for at least 15 years.

An engineering firm – GPI/Greenman Pederson, Inc. of Lebanon, N.J. – is designing the multi-faceted project (2020). Construction activities are expected to begin sometime during 2021, which is the 100th anniversary of the year the tolled crossing was freed of tolls after being acquired by Pennsylvania and New Jersey in a transaction facilitated by the former Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges across the Delaware River.

Work is expected to take place on the bridge, below the bridge and at the masonry abutments at both ends of the bridge. The Commission is seeking to have the project construction activities staged in a manner to alleviate travel impacts, such as preventing disruptions of Pennsylvania-bound travel that would force motorists to make tolled crossings of the nearby Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge.

As currently scheduled, a virtual open house about the project is expected to be announced and held sometime toward the end of 2020. More information will be posted when it becomes available.

Questions/Comment

Call or email: Director of Community Affairs Jodee Inscho
Phone: 215-862-7867
Email: info@drjtbc.org

Project Information

All of the following dates are tentative estimates:

  • April to December 2020 – Design Process
  • Virtual Open House and Comment Period – December 2020 (specific dates to be announced)
  • Late Winter 2021 – Advertise for Construction Bids
  • Early Spring 2021 – Award Construction Contract
  • Spring 2021 – Begin Construction
  • Late spring, early summer 2022 – Project Completion

The major anticipated project tasks include:

  • Clean and paint the steel superstructure
  • Repoint stone-masonry abutments, piers and wingwalls
  • Reconstruct end pylons/walls
  • Repair/rehabilitate various steel truss members
  • Replace both pedestrian walkway surfaces
  • Replace bridge approach sidewalks
  • Replace electrical systems and back-up generator
  • Install new ornamental lighting fixtures
  • Install new programmable architectural lighting to highlight bridge profile

The project team includes:

  • Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission – Project funding, manager
  • GPI/Greenman Pedersen – Preliminary, final, and post design prime consultant
  • AEA/Advantage Engineering Associates – Roadway lighting design sub-consultant
  • Domingo Gonzalez Associates – Architectural lighting design sub-consultant
  • ACT Engineers – Public involvement consultant
  • Contractor – to be determined

The Northampton Street Toll-Supported Bridge – colloquially referred to as the “free bridge’’ – is the Commission’s second oldest superstructure, having been constructed in 1895 and 1896.  It is a rare bridge design that gets high marks among bridge enthusiasts.  The bridge rates a 10 on a scale of 10 on the HistoricBridges.org website’s historic significance rankings – both nationally and locally, stating:  “This bridge is a unique, incredible blend of engineering and artistry that is unlike any other bridge in the country.  At first glance, it has the appearance of an eyebar suspension bridge.  However, this bridge is a true cantilever truss bridge.”

The bridge is the only three-lane vehicular bridge in the Commission’s system and it the most heavily used of the agency’s 12 non-toll bridges.  It carried a daily average volume of 16,900 vehicles in 2019.  The bridge has a three-ton weight limit and a 15 mph speed limit.  Bridge monitors are stationed at each end of the bridge on a 24/7 basis to prevent crossings of overweight vehicles.

The last inspection report on the Commission’s toll-supported bridges – conducted in 2018 and released in 2019 – classified the bridge as being in “fair condition” and “capable of safely supporting the posted load.”  However, the report compiled a list of concerns that have slowly arisen since the    bridge’s last rehabilitation in 2001:

  • Floor beams and stringers (a secondary steel girder found below truss bridge road decks) typically exhibit 1/8-inch material loss at their bottom flanges and web bases.
  • Several stringers exhibit minor impact damage; one stringer is bent upward five inches.
  • A riser beam has a full-length cracked weld at one end and three of four missing connection bolts.
  • There are numerous small holes throughout the stringers and floor beams.
  • There is impact damage (likely caused by a large tree or some other floating object during a flood) at several locations in the bridge’s lower chords.
  • Some upper chord eyebars are loose.
  • During high temperatures – 100 degrees or more – the upstream truss’s upper chord member can bow by more than five inches into the adjacent traffic lane. The bowing appears to be the result of thermal expansion and, possibly, corrosion at the pin nuts.
  • There are several damaged conduits beneath the bridge (probably damaged by debris in high-water events.)

This list of deficiencies pushed into a priority position in the Commission’s rolling capital improvement program, which is ultimately financed by tolls collected at the agency’s toll bridges.  The resulting rehabilitation project will address these structural concerns while addressing other needs at the bridge, making for a comprehensive approach.  Additional issues to be addressed under the project include:

  • Several of the fiberglass walkway panels have cracked and been replaced over the years and the surface is wearing.
  • Parapets/balustrades on the walkway approaches have cracks, scrapes, spalls, and heavy corrosion/deterioration of underside steel forms.
  • Conduit for various utility lines below the walkways are damaged.
  • Ornamental lighting system installed 20 years ago reached the end of its useful life many years ago.
  • Painting surfaces have faded and small rust spots have begun to appear.
  • Masonry abutments and wingwalls have areas of missing mortar, moderate vegetation growth, missing stones, cracks, spalling, efflorescence stains, and/or voids up to two inches.

The Northampton Street Bridge was constructed in 1895 and 1896.  Its superstructure is primarily steel, but some structural members – such as the eyebars – are wrought iron.  There is no opening date for the bridge because it was constructed over and around the footprint of the Timothy Palmer-designed wooden-covered Easton Bridge, the second bridge to cross the Delaware River.  The old Easton Bridge’s wooden vehicular deck continued in use for a substantial amount of time while the metal replacement bridge with new piers and expanded abutments were constructed.

It took several years to construct the Easton Bridge, primarily because of challenges its owners – the former Easton Delaware Bridge Company – experienced in raising capital to finance the project.  The wooden bridge reached completion and opened to use as a private tolled crossing in September 1806.  The venture proved to be worthwhile as the bridge company stock shares became a coveted commodity for generations of area investors.  The bridge’s strong dividends eventually sparked agitation among residents in Easton and Phillipsburg (incorporated as a township in 1851) seeking free or reduced pedestrian passage.  Pedestrian tolls were eliminated in 1856 – 50 years after the bridge’s opening.

Palmer’s Easton Bridge survived multiple floods but was showing its age in the latter decades of the 19th century.  With the advent of electric trolley service in Easton, the Easton Delaware Bridge Company was compelled to replace the dowdy wooden bridge in the 1890s.  The plans for a steel bridge were drawn by James Madison Porter III, the member of a distinguished Easton family.   Porter’s grandfather – James Madison Porter – was a former president of the Easton Delaware Bridge Company and one of the founders of Lafayette College.  Like his grandfather, Porter III taught at Lafayette.

A renowned engineer and successful businessman, Porter was a strong proponent of cantilever bridge designs.  His Northampton Street Bridge is considered his crowning achievement because of the way it was constructed and because of its unique design.  At first glance, it looks like an eyebar suspension bridge, but is actually a cantilever truss structure.

The design is identical to that of the Liberty Bridge that spans the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary.  Both bridges are cantilever trusses that have plaques, finials and other decorative features. Designed by Janos Feketehazy, the Liberty Bridge is longer and more massive than its Delaware River counterpart.  It is unclear how Porter and Feketehazy came to design similar bridges at approximately the same time.  One theory holds that Feketehazy’s plans were shared with Porter while he was on a trip to Europe.

Porter completed his bridge design in 1894.  The Easton Delaware Bridge Company then contracted with the Union Bridge Company of Athens, PA. to construct the structure.  Union Bridge was consolidated into the American Bridge Company by financier J.P. Morgan in 1900.

The Northampton Street Bridge, like its wooden predecessor, was operated as a tolled crossing by the Easton Delaware Bridge Company.   It also was strong enough to carry an electrified trolley.  After the “Pumpkin Flood” of 1903 and the advent of affordable mass-produced automobiles in 1908, Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents began agitating public officials to purchase and “free” various privately owned bridges that served the Delaware River region.  This free bridges movement led to the 1916 creation of a bi-state panel – the former Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges – that assisted the states in jointly purchasing the old privately owned bridges linking the two states over the next 16 years.

The Easton Delaware Bridge Company resisted efforts to sell its bridge, largely on account of the healthy dividends it provided to its shareholders.  The two states finally succeeded in purchasing the bridge for $300.000 on Aug. 3, 1921.  The states then paid the old Joint Commission equal annual tax-generated subsidies to operate and maintain the bridge.

In 1924, the bridge was significantly rehabilitated, with traffic restricted to a single lane.  Backups and delays raised awareness of the need for a larger bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg.  This led to the creation of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC) in 1934 and the construction of the Bushkill Street Toll Bridge — now the Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge, which opened in January 1938.  The DRJTBC assumed the responsibility of operating and maintaining the Northampton Street Bridge on behalf of the two states in 1934.

The Northampton Street Bridge was the Delaware River crossing point for the former William Penn Highway.  The bridge carried all vehicular and pedestrian between Easton and Phillipsburg for almost 42 years.  Because of this, the bridge’s load rating was restricted to 7 tons around the time of the toll bridge’s opening.  The trolley rails were removed in 1951.

The bridge’s center span was destroyed in the Delaware River’s historic flood of 1955.  Two Bailey bridges were erected upstream of the damaged structure; these temporary structures linked the two municipalities for about two years and was removed in 1958.  During that time, the Northampton Street Bridge’s center span was reconstructed.  The work involved the removal of about 221 tons of old steel and the installation of about 197 tons of new steel along with 190 yards of concrete paving.  The repaired bridge reopened October 23, 1957.

The two states maintained ownership until July 1, 1987.  On that date, deeds were assigned outright to the DRJTBC and the states ceased providing equal annual tax subsidies for the bridge’s operation and maintenance.  Under changes the two states and Congress made to the DRJTBC’s Compact in 1987, the Commission uses a share of revenues collected at its toll bridges to run the Northampton Street Bridge and 11 other “toll supported” bridges that were formerly owned by the two states.

In 1995, the bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Year completed: 1896

Structure type: Cantilever truss

Total length: 550 feet

Width: 36 feet

Span lengths:

  • PA span – 125 feet
  • Center span – 300 feet
  • NJ Span – 125 feet

Number of lanes:

  • PA-bound – 2
  • NJ-bound – 1

Total clear roadway width: 32 feet

Sidewalk widths: 8 feet

Load rating: 3 tons

Vertical clearance on structure: 10-feet, 6-inches

FHWA classification: Functionally Obsolete

Last Rehabilitation: 2002

Last Painted: 2002

Flood Info (river reading levels in feet):

  • Normal: 155.2
  • Warning: 160
  • Flood: 177.2
  • Top of pier: 188

River Crossing Ownership

  • Easton Delaware Bridge Co. — October 14, 1806 to August 3, 1921
  • New Jersey and Pennsylvania (joint tax-suppported) — August 3, 1921 to July 1, 1987
  • Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (toll-supported) — July 1, 1987 to present
    • Tolled — 115 years
    • Non-toll — 99 years
  • Top of pier: 188

DRJTBC drone flyover (Dec. 23, 2019) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1qlWNOzucM&feature=youtu.be

Vivian Makin (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1rSvIzRlr4

Flood of 1955 and Reopening (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEdfXyyxVNM

Brien Lee, Union Square Phillipsburg 4:30 p.m. (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzy-LNM54fs

Roadwaywiz, Westboud (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIHEW25O3Z4

Roadwaywiz Eastbound (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqjVwJM8NG8

Various DRJTBC aerial, historical, and profile photos of the bridge.

Historical
Aerial
Profile
Plaques and architectural details photos.