WESTAMPTON — The Centerton Road bridge closure has continued to draw criticism from area residents, including more than 100 who turned out to a public meeting Wednesday.
The Burlington County Board of Freeholders, sitting on the county engineer's firm recommendation to demolish the 112-year-old bridge that spans the Rancocas Creek and go after $21 million in state funding to replace it, held the meeting to seek input from area residents.
More than 100 residents crammed into the Burlington County Library System's Westampton auditorium to hear county engineer Joe Brickley's presentation. He went over the cost of four different options and what was recommended by planning, engineering and surveying firm Taylor Wiseman & Taylor.
Most who spoke wanted the bridge demolished and rebuilt for vehicular traffic to avoid driving onto Interstate 295, but there were mixed feelings about where the money should come from.
"We need this bridge to reopen to traffic and we need Trenton to know we pay our taxes and we want the bridge done right," said longtime Willingboro resident Eileen Fee.
Fee, like nearly a dozen other residents, wants to avoid raising taxes to cover the cost of replacing the bridge. A few said they would not mind using their county tax dollars to replace the bridge.
"I think my past tax dollars should be used to pay for the bridge," said Willingboro resident Lilyan Cralle. "Get all the grants you can, but find county dollars too."
Many also questioned why the bridge wasn't replaced years prior.
Fee asked why the county made a $6 million repair in 2010 and five years later classified the bridge as "substandard."
"(We) risked our lives all this time," she said, reiterating her stance on constructing a new bridge.
"To me the bridge has been neglected long enough," said Cynthia Beasley, of Willingboro. "I used the bridge daily and every time I went over it I said a prayer."
While the freeholders have not authorized the bridge's removal, they agree it must be demolished.
"Taking the bridge down is the first step in replacing it," county spokesman Eric Arpert said.
Residents like Lori Howard, of Mount Laurel, who started a Facebook group advocating for the bridge, are unsettled by the lack of county planning.
She has questioned the future planning for the bridge and asked why it was essentially destined to remain off the state comprehensive plan.
There's also uncertainty that the county will find $21 million from the state to replace a bridge deemed "redundant."
Freeholders continue to blame the state's Transportation Trust Fund woes on the lack of funding to bring the bridge up to current standards.
Burlington County spends an average of $15 million in state aid on transportation infrastructure improvements. The county also applies for an additional $1 million yearly.
According to Burlington County Freeholder Director Mary Ann O'Brien, the state's Transportation Trust Fund has decreased by 56 percent. She said more than half of the state's infrastructure are county and locally owned, but the state only shells out 12 percent of its $1.6 billion budget.
Freeholder Aimee Belgard read a letter sent by state Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th, who said "we can no longer cast blame" and should "consider all options available" to Burlington County when it comes to transportation infrastructure.
A question was raised about the Centerton Road bridge missing from the Transportation Department's Transportation Improvement Program, a 10-year guide for transportation improvements across the state that allocates funding for various projects.
"In the eyes of the state and the federal government" the Centerton Road bridge became "redundant" and "obsolete" when money was spent on the Interstate 295 expansion, Arpert said.
"All freeholders can do is continue to find funding to rebuild the bridge," Arpert said.
On average, 14,000 cars used the bridge before it closed in April following an inspection that found the bridge unsafe for vehicular traffic. Since then, county officials mulled the idea of turning it into a pedestrian bridge after initial estimates of $10 million to $15 million to reopen it to cars posed as an unlikely, expensive option.
Officials have said it would cost more than $5 million to demolish and reconstruct a pedestrian-only bridge over the creek.
The freeholders will reach out to state representatives to find state funding to replace the bridge.
"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue," freeholder Joanne Schwartz said. "This is a people issue."
Freeholders urged residents to also reach out to state representatives about the need for additional transportation infrastructure funding.
It's unknown if the freeholders will vote on the bridge at their next meeting Oct. 14.