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Safety concerns close Erie Canalway pedestrian bridge in Amherst

Walkers and bikers in Amherst can't cross this bridge when they come to it.

The town last week closed off a pedestrian bridge that's part of the Erie Canalway Trail along Tonawanda Creek after an engineering consultant found the bridge is unsafe. The town plans to replace the 40-year-old pedestrian bridge, which crosses Ransom Creek next to the Tonawanda Creek Road vehicle bridge.

The closing leaves officials scrambling to find a way for bicyclists, walkers and in-line skaters to get across Ransom Creek.

Amherst Highway Superintendent Patrick Lucey said the road bridge doesn't have enough room to allow pedestrians and others to safely travel alongside vehicles traveling at the posted speed limit of 45 mph, though this hasn't stopped bicyclists from crossing that bridge in recent days.

The town is working with the state Canal Corporation and Erie County to find a solution as it waits to replace the bridge sometime in the next year.

"We need to come up with a safe alternative," said Jacqualine Berger, a Town Board member and liaison to the town's Recreation Commission.

The pedestrian bridge is at least 40 years old, said Lucey, who didn't have an exact opening date. The bridge is metal with a wooden deck, built on a concrete foundation, and it sits just to the north of the road bridge.

It carries the Erie Canalway Trail, which runs across the length of the state, over Ransom Creek. The bridge is between Campbell Boulevard and Hopkins Road near the Donald Spoth Farm and Greenhouse.

The town was alerted to a potential problem with the bridge by an employee with the state Canal Corporation in May or June. He pointed out some deficiencies, Lucey said, but urged the town to have someone formally inspect the span.

Lucey and Town Engineer Jeff Burroughs brought in the engineering company GPI to check out the bridge. A preliminary inspection report by GPI, which the town received this month, cited structural problems in recommending its closure. The town on Aug. 15 shut down the bridge, which is blocked off by barriers on both sides.

The pedestrian bridge appears to tilt slightly to the south, toward the road bridge, due to extensive rusting, Lucey said. That rust likely is caused by road salt used on the neighboring road bridge splashing onto the pedestrian span.

It's a town-owned bridge that is jointly maintained by Amherst and the county. Lucey said the town, the county and the state Canal Corporation are all in agreement that the pedestrian bridge should come down.

Building and installing a new bridge won't be cheap, with estimates of $250,000, but the town is committed to doing that work, Lucey said.

The town believes it's cost prohibitive to repair the existing span while preparing to replace it. So that's why the town closed it for the foreseeable future.

The problem, Lucey said, is the road bridge isn't designed to handle bikes and walkers as well. It has a 45 mph speed limit, for one. And it's one lane in each direction, with shoulders on either side, but only 28 feet from guardrail to guardrail, Lucey said.

The town and the county are trying to figure out the safest way for pedestrians and cyclists using the trail to get across Ransom Creek.

"I'm amazed at how complicated it is," Berger said, noting the number of agencies involved.

One option for the road bridge is to set up temporary signals at either end to allow for alternating one-way traffic and expanded shoulders for cyclists and walkers, Lucey said.

For now, the town is recommending that people approaching on the trail from either direction turn around and head back the way they came, Lucey said.

"We knew from day one, this is not a good scenario," he said. "We are definitely not detouring them up on the road. It's just too hazardous."

The county said it is willing to help the town however it can and said the town has the ability to lower the speed limit on that stretch of Tonawanda Creek Road.

"Erie County [Department of Public Works] has also been talking with the town regarding what engineering actions it can take to address the issue (actions that follow state and federal guidelines), and will continue to work with both the town and Canal Corporation going forward on this," Peter Anderson, a spokesman for the Erie County Executive's Office, said in an email. "But ultimately the county does not own the land/bridge or the trailway so the county is somewhat limited in the actions it can take."


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