On Thursday, January 17th, around 7:15 a.m. a 53' tractor trailer from Western Express Inc. impacted the Norfolk Southern train bridge. Unlike most of the trucks that are involved in these frequent clearance incidents, which are usually 17' moving trucks, this vehicle requires a state CDL license to operate a Class A vehicle. Abel Brothers Towing once again extracted the vehicle, which required 2 semi tow trucks, a flatbed, and 5 hours. The vehicle was finally towed away at 12:15 in the afternoon; Main Street was closed during the extraction process and re-routed over the Gay Street Bridge.
This was the fourth such instance in as many months, including the October 17th incident where 2 different trucks were stuck under the bridge just 12 hours apart. The stretch of Main Street between Bridge Street and High Street is particularly challenging for truck drivers due to its steep slope, tight curve, and limited visibility. Particularly when traveling north on Main Street, the bridge clearance looks deceptively high, since the slope of Main Street as it rounds past Vanderslice Street increases, creating an egress height from the bridge significantly shorter than the entering height seen on approach. Despite the markings labeling the bridge as having a clearance of 10' 4", trucks routinely travel on Main Street and end up trapped under the bridge. Trucks also frequently turn north on Main Street to realize the clearance issue and are then forced to turn around. One hypothesis I have heard is that drivers are uncertain where exactly the turn for 113 is, and so they turn onto Main Street. This seems credible, and the issue of trucks traveling on Main Street between Bridge Street and High Street is something that should be seriously investigated for several reasons:
- Easy alternative - The Gay Street Bridge is literally one block away, with no clearance issues whatsoever and a designated part of route 113. Perhaps signage approaching Main Street directing drivers to the Gay Street Bridge to reach 113 would alleviate the confusion that seems to be occurring.
- Wasted Tax dollars - The fines that are collected from such events surely pales in comparison to the costs incurred by the Borough regarding police presence, inspections, removal costs, and administrative costs to ensure any fines and fees owed by the party at fault are collected. Additionally, Phoenixville’s law enforcement officers probably have more pressing business pursue, and eliminating such traffic occurrences would facilitate that.
- Structural Concerns - The railroad bridge is a mechanical system. Like any mechanical system, it is designed to withstand certain unexpected forces outside of the scope of its intended design within specific tolerances. Like all mechanical systems though the frequent and forceful impacts laterally on such a structure will weaken its integrity over time; there is already physical evidence of the damage to the bridge with sheared plating and twisted support struts from various impacts and the necessary processes to remove vehicles. It is best that a mechanical system such as a bridge not be exposed to such lateral forces from the start, and multiple instances of damage are compounding. In other words, each subsequent impact is weakening an already weakened system.
There seems to be little reason that the frequency of these instances will diminish, as conversations with local residents has shown; so perhaps our best efforts lie in preventing more (or at the very least, minimizing the probability of recurrence.) Reducing the impacts is also voiced as desirable by many of the area’s residents; simply read the comments section of any article involving a truck/bridge collision. Residents have grown weary of the thundering booms, screeching metal, blocked roads, and constant distraction to police that these accidents create. There seem to be two major schools of thought on the solution to the problem: Either raise the bridge back up as it was during the reconstruction of the Gay Street Bridge, or raze the bridge to the ground removing it as an obstacle. Both of these ideas have merits, but are seemingly unworkable: Norfolk Southern will not allow the bridge to be raised (hence it being lowered after the construction completion), and the bridge will most likely not be taken down due to its possible inclusion in a proposed rail line extending out toward Paoli/Great Valley. There is, however, a third option.
An ordinance can be passed by the Borough Council to prohibit vehicles from traveling this route if they meet certain criteria. Phoenixville Borough Code, Chapter 15 (Motor Vehicles and Traffic), Section 302 is titled "Restriction on Size of Vehicles on Certain Streets and Bridges." There are currently no entries under §15-302, though one could be put forth to the Council for a restriction of vehicles >10' on Main Street between Bridge Street and High Street. A violation of §15-302 carries a $75 fine plus costs. Signs placed on Bridge Street east of Main Street traveling west, west of Main Street traveling east, on Main Street south of Bridge Street traveling north, and on High Street east of Main Street traveling west, should adequately inform drivers of the restriction and prevent them from using Main Street as a traveling thoroughfare. (A driver traveling east on High Street would have already passed the Gay Street Bridge, a far better option, and the turn south onto Main Street from High Street is very tight and would be difficult for a truck driver to make. Signage here would not be necessary.)
This solution would most probably be the best option to prohibit such vehicles, as a tractor trailer prohibition would not prevent oversized moving trucks from using Main Street, and most "truck" designations are predicated upon weight not size (such as §15-304: Certain Classes of Vehicles Prohibited on Certain Highways, which requires a 4 ton vehicle weight to be applicable.) In order to ensure that the vehicles restricted are done so on the appropriate parameter of a height restriction, §15-302 may be the best tool the Borough can use to reduce the number of accidents with this low lying bridge.