AREA — Last month, hundreds of commuters found themselves routed around the Central Avenue bridge as PSE&G worked to complete the first phase of its new higher-voltage powerline installation project. Both the Clark and Westfield Police Departments (the bridge spans the two municipalities), along with the Union County Department of Engineering, Public Works and Facilities (Central Avenue is a county-owned thoroughfare), sent out alerts regarding the bridge’s repeat closures, which caused numerous backups and traffic delays. In looking for more information about the project, however, The Westfield Leader and Union County HAWK learned something unexpected: the bridge itself, like dozens of others across the state, does not actually belong to anyone.
“The bridge is not within the county’s jurisdiction and is actually an orphan bridge. It has no real owner,” said Kelly Martins, Union County’s director of public information.
According to information provided by the state Department of Transportation, the term “orphan bridge,” which calls to mind questions about safety and maintenance challenges, is actually a fairly common phrase used to describe any roadway bridge that crosses over an abandoned railroad right-of-way.
Historic records indicate that the Central Avenue bridge was built by the Public Works Administration (a large-scale public construction entity that was formed to create jobs and stabilize the national economy following the Great Depression) in 1935 for a total of $118,963.
“That bridge was likely constructed as part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which offered passenger service through the area until February 4, 1961 and continued to serve as a freight line until its dissolution in the mid-70’s,” said former Clark Police Chief Denis Connell, a self-described train aficionado and author of several published works on the subject. “At the time the Central Avenue bridge was built, railroads were making a concentrated effort to do away with grade crossings – street-level crossings where train tracks cross directly over a roadway – because that’s where the majority of railroad accidents occur. Overpasses like this were a good solution.”
By the mid-1970s, however, national transportation — and its infrastructure — had changed.
According to information provided by the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), American railroads were detrimentally affected by the increased popularity of air and truck transportation, especially in the years between 1930 and 1960.
In the northeast, meanwhile, railroads, including several that operated in the Union County area, suffered further financial hardships as the country shifted its predominate energy reliance from coal to oil.
As a result, Conrail states on its website, six major railroads ultimately went bankrupt.
In 1974, Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act, which provided interim funding to the bankrupted railroads and created Conrail as a government-funded private company designed to help the industry navigate the system-wide collapse.
When Conrail, which is still in operation today, assumed control over the individual railroads, however, many bridges like the one on Central Avenue were left out of the equation.
According to court records, Conrail successfully argued that these overhead bridges, all of which were built in support of companies that no longer existed, were not part of the railroad rights-of-way that were conveyed to it at the time of the merger and therefore could not be considered to be the exclusive responsibility of the newly formed entity.
Thus, the orphan bridges were born.
But the fact that no one has technically owned these structures for more than four decades does not mean they are being left to rot.
According to Chapter 34B of the New Jersey Administrative Code, orphan bridges are managed and maintained through the “jurisdictional cooperation” of the State Department of Transportation (DOT), Conrail (or whichever railroad authority maintains control over the tracks that run beneath the bridge in question), and, depending on the situation, county and municipal governments. The state DOT, for example, is required to assume responsibility for “principal structural elements” like bridge decks and abutments, while the governmental entity that owns the approaching roadways on either side of the bridge (which, in the case of the Central Avenue bridge, would be Union County) has to handle “routine maintenance” like snow removal, sidewalk and guardrail repair, lighting, patching and resurfacing. Structural supports, meanwhile, are maintained by the railroad companies.
To bring things back full circle, orphan bridges also are subject to repairs and improvements by utility companies like PSE&G, which frequently need to access power lines and other structural necessities along the spans.
For now, at least, the Central Avenue bridge is still holding up and serving its intended purpose. But, Mr. Connell said, it may need more than the divided attentions of its managing entities at some point in the near future.
“That bridge sees a ton of traffic every day,” Mr. Connell said, “and on top of that, it’s almost 90 years old. Eventually, metal fatigue is going to set in. Once that happens, they’ll have to come up with a more permanent solution.”