The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission is working on a new $310 million bridge to replace the current Interstate 95/Scudder Falls Bridge that connects New Jersey and Pennsylvania and is more than 50 years old.
Officials anticipate issuing nearly $390 million of debt to help finance the new bridge and pay for other projects, but federal funds received for the bridge could decrease that amount to about $250 million, said Frank McCartney, the commission’s executive director.
The agency is looking to sell the long-term debt during the fourth quarter of this year or early 2011 as it will run out of funds for capital projects in that time frame.
To help support the new bridge, the commission applied for a $130 million loan through the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which offers low-interest loans and credit support.
McCartney said the agency also applied for $100 million of federal transportation innovation generating economic recovery grant funds, but acknowledged that the TIGER program is very competitive.
“While we’ll welcome it if we receive it, we’re not optimistic that we’ll receive it given the demand of the competition,” McCartney said.
The commission opted to build a new structure as opposed to rehabilitating the I-95/Scudder Falls bridge because the span, while currently safe, cannot be renovated.
In addition, the on-off ramps connected to the bridge are also in need of safety upgrades. The bridge carries 59,500 vehicles per day, with daily traffic volumes estimated to increase to 76,500 vehicles by 2030.
“It’s over 50 years old and the design that was appropriate at that time would not be designed or built today,” McCartney said. “There are some issues associated with that bridge that would not lead itself to a rehabilitation so we’ve made a determination that we’re going to replace it with a new structure.”
Construction is expected to begin in 2011 and will last for three to three-and-a-half years, with traffic continuing throughout construction. The new bridge will have six lanes of traffic, compared to the four lanes on the current span.
The commission last month announced that it will implement new tolling to help pay for the cost of the project. That tolling program will be cash-less open-road tolling. Officials are still working on when to begin tolling and what the toll rate should be.
“What the toll will be on this bridge will be contingent upon a whole group of variables,” McCartney said. “Not the least of which would be any loans or grants we might get through the TIFIA program, or the economy, or traffic. There’s a whole slew of issues that we’ll have to deal with before we set a toll. So, we don’t have a minimum toll at this point.”
New tolling requires Federal Highway Administration approval, although McCartney said there are provisions that allow for tolling with the reconstruction or replacement of a new bridge or tunnel.
Currently, seven of the commission’s 20 bridges are tolled, with automobiles paying 75 cents.
Traffic dropped in early 2009 by nearly 9%, but car traffic has come back to stronger levels. Officials are still waiting for truck and commercial activity to return to pre-2009 levels.
“We’re monitoring our traffic, particularly our commercial traffic to see how much they progress because that will determine what our needs will be to establish tolls to fund [the new bridge],” McCartney said.
Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service rate the commission A-minus and A2, respectively. The agency has $448.8 million of outstanding debt as of Dec. 31, 2008, according to its most recent fiscal statement.
The commission last sold $284 million of debt in September 2007. It’s currently working on a comprehensive $950 million program to upgrade and refurbish many of its bridges.
The commission is a bi-state agency that oversees 20 bridges that span the Delaware River. Its jurisdiction extends for 139 miles along the river from the Philadelphia-Bucks County line to the New Jersey-New York State border.