Delaware Water Gap (I-80) Toll Bridge New Jersey-bound -- I-80 eastbound motorists approaching the bridge from Monroe County, PA. could experience backups and delays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24, and Thursday, May 25.
The bridge's New Jersey-bound direction is scheduled to be reduced to a single lane on those dates for paving and milling work between drainage inlets.
The Commission is one of the nation’s oldest bi-state transportation agencies. Its jurisdiction includes the site of the nation’s first interstate bridge – the former Trenton Bridge, and a series of other crossings that were originally constructed in the 1800s as privately owned toll bridges. Traffic in the Commission’s first full year of operation in 1935 was slightly more than 20 million vehicles. In 2015, traffic reached a record 141.7 million vehicles.
The following Timeline is developed based on a 75th anniversary account published in the Commission’s 2009 Annual Report.
The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission is one of the nation’s oldest toll agencies. Its genesis is rooted in the advent of the automobile age during the first quarter of the last century. Its incorporation and history of operations reflect an ongoing responsiveness to a continuous trend of rising traffic rates, larger and faster vehicles, and growing volumes of interstate commerce in each ensuing decade.
The watershed event that gave rise for a reconstituted toll agency occurred in 1925, when the Northampton Street Bridge linking Easton, Pa. and Phillipsburg, N.J. required major repairs. In the course of making repairs, one half of the road deck had to be closed to traffic. This resulted in crippling traffic jams, economic losses in the two communities and numerous problems for law enforcement.
The experience motivated community and business leaders to crusade for construction of a new bridge—the current Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge, originally named the Bushkill Street Bridge.
The predecessor commission subsequently received authorization from the two states to prepare plans, specifications, and cost estimates of the additional bridge. But when the costs of the proposed structure and approaches were determined to require multi-million-dollar subsidies from the two states, it was made clear to the predecessor commission that the two states would not provide the funds necessary to build a “free” bridge; the new bridge would need to be financed through sales of Revenue Bonds.
The legislative process to convert the predecessor commission into a toll agency began in 1931, but it was not completed until late 1934. By this time, the region’s transportation needs were growing rapidly. Almost all car models were longer, wider, more powerful, and increasingly affordable. The price of a brand new 4-door Dodge sedan was $665. Innovations such as aerodynamic designs, one-piece curved windshields, and radio controls built into instrument panels all took root in 1934.
Responding to the legislative mandate, the reconstituted Commission organized itself on December 28, 1934. Its first official meeting took place in February 1935, a non-voting session where testimony was gathered on the need for the proposed Bushkill Street Toll Bridge between Phillipsburg and Easton. (The bridge was later renamed the Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge after a “dual high-speed highway” approach through Easton was constructed and opened to traffic in 1952.)
At the time the Commission approved the construction of the Bushkill Street Bridge, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. The push for large-scale public improvement projects was intensifying as a means of putting unemployed people back to work. In 1934 alone, construction was already in full swing on the Golden Gate Bridge in California, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s hydroelectric system in the South.
Construction on the Bushkill Street Bridge began in 1936. It was completed and opened to traffic on January 17, 1938, at the cost of approximately $2,500,000 financed by revenue bonds payable solely from tolls collected at the facility. The new bridge was hailed as the “The World’s Most Brilliant Bridge” and it ranked as the longest single steel truss in the nation, a distinction it held for 19 years. It would be more than a decade—a period that included the end of the Great Depression and the dark years of World War II—before the Commission would break ground to construct another vehicular bridge.
Bushkill Street Bridge circa 1938
From Wooden Bridges to Super Highways
Despite the Depression, traffic volumes grew steadily during the Commission’s early years. In its first full year of operation in 1935, the agency’s network of non-toll bridges carried slightly more than 20 million vehicles. Like its predecessor agency, the Commission operated and maintained these bridges with tax revenues provided by the two states. One of the non-toll bridges was a wooden covered span—Portland-Columbia. Constructed in 1869, it would go on to hold the distinction as the longest remaining wooden covered bridge in the country.
Another bridge—Lumberville-Raven Rock—consisted of four wooden spans and a single steel span. (It was closed to vehicular traffic for reasons of public safety in June 1945. The Commission replaced the bridge with a pedestrian suspension span in November 1947 at a reported cost of $75,000 that included removal of the old bridge.) Many of the Commission’s other bridges still had wooden road decks.
With the outbreak of World War II and the imposition of gasoline rationing between 1942 and 1946, the Commission experienced a traffic decrease—reaching a low of roughly 15.9 million vehicles in 1943. But when the war ended and the region experienced a building boom and a wave of rampant suburbanization, the Commission saw rapid annual traffic increases—surpassing 34 million vehicular crossings in 1950.
A New Mobile Society
The Commission responded to this new mobile society—and the need for stronger bridges for national defense purposes—by launching and completing a series of “super highway” toll bridge projects. The first of these was the Trenton-Morrisville (Route 1) Toll Bridge, which opened in 1952. The project required the relocation of a series of residences to make way for the bridge and the corresponding completions of a new Route 1 roadway in Morrisville, Pa. and the “Trenton Freeway” in New Jersey. The project also included construction of a four-story administration building adjacent to the bridge’s toll plaza. The facility—situated between Route 1 and Wood Street in Morrisville—served as the agency’s headquarters for the next 56 years.
In December 1953, the Commission opened three new toll bridges in its northern district in a single month: Portland-Columbia, Delaware Water Gap (I-80) and Milford-Montague. During the decade, the Commission also reconstructed a flood-damaged bridge and built a new pedestrian bridge.
And at the end of the decade, the agency was assigned operational responsibility for the Scudder Falls Bridge, which the Commission constructed for Pennsylvania and New Jersey through a combination of state and federal funds. (While construction of the Scudder Falls Bridge ended in 1959, it did not open to traffic until June 22, 1961, when the two states finally completed approach roadways to the span.)
As heady as the Fifties were for the Commission, the decade posed one notable setback. In 1955, the most devastating flood ever recorded along the Delaware River presented an unanticipated set of problems for the Commission, its administrators and its engineering staff. The flood waters resulted from the remnants of two separate hurricanes—Connie and Diane—that inundated the river region with rain during a one-week period.
The river gauge at Riegelsville, Pennsylvania recorded an all-time record crest of 38.85 feet on August 19, 1955. The raging flood waters damaged nearly every bridge. For a few hours during the crisis, the Trenton-Morrisville (Route 1) Toll Bridge was the only river crossing under control of the Commission open to traffic. Four non-toll spans were destroyed—Portland-Columbia Covered Bridge, Northampton Street Bridge, Point Pleasant-Byram Bridge, and Yardley-Wilburtha Bridge. Of these, the Northampton Street Bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg was the only vehicular crossing to be totally restored, reopening with considerable fanfare on October 23, 1957. Three “Bailey” spans enabled the Yardley-Wilburtha Bridge to resume service, but only until May 1961, when it was finally deemed unsafe for further use.
Flood ravaged Northampton Street Bridge restored and reopened October 23, 1957.
A steel girder pedestrian bridge constructed on the piers of the venerable Portland-Columbia timber bridge opened on October 22, 1958.
If you build it, they will come
When the 1960s arrived, the Commission had responsibility for operating 13 non-toll state-owned bridges (two of which were pedestrian only spans) and five toll bridges. Total traffic for 1960 was slightly more than 56 million vehicles—an increase of over 21 million vehicles from 1950.
The Commission switched focus during the 1960s, concentrating less on mega projects and instead tending to its mission of maintaining, operating and improving its network of modern-day toll crossings and aging state-owned, non-toll bridges. As in the 1950s, there were significant traffic increases in all regions of the Commission’s 140-mile river jurisdiction.
Between 1960 and 1969, annual vehicular traffic nearly doubled at the Trenton-Morrisville (Route 1) Toll Bridge—a 94.42 percent increase, from roughly 5 million to roughly 9.8 million crossings. The Delaware Water Gap (I-80) Toll Bridge saw a 95.7percent increase in traffic, from 1.8 million to 3.5 million crossings. Meanwhile, traffic at the Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge rose 48.87 percent (from 7.1 million vehicles in 1960 to 10.6 million vehicles in 1969) due to growth in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region.
Increases also were seen at many of the Commission’s aging non-toll bridges, the largest occurring at the Commission’s four Bucks County, Pa.-Hunterdon County, N.J. vehicular crossings—New Hope-Lambertville, Centre Bridge-Stockton, Uhlerstown-Frenchtown, and Upper Black Eddy-Milford. A comparison of these four bridges showed an average 34.33 percent increase in traffic, according to year-end reports in 1960 and 1969.
Partly due to this traffic surge and the congestion that regularly inundated the overcrowded, weight-limited, two-lane truss span connecting New Hope, Pa., and Lambertville, N.J., the Commission in the early Sixties began planning construction of a new toll bridge to carry U.S. Route 202 traffic around the two communities. Ground was broken October 7, 1968 and the $13 million structure opened to traffic on Thursday, July 22, 1971.
In constructing the new bridge, the Commission attempted to accommodate local residents who did not want a foreboding institutional building constructed in the rural setting. So, the administration building and maintenance garage at the site were designed in a manner that captured the Bucks County farm motif in exterior appearance, “conserving the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside.”
Automation, Bridge Preservation & Gas Shortages
Traffic rose steadily in all corners of the Commission’s jurisdiction with the onset of dual-income households and the maturation of the car-crazed “baby boom” generation in the 1960s. To ease the situation at the Commission’s toll bridges, the agency began employing automated coin and token collection devices at its toll plazas in the early 1970s. (While the Commission’s tokens were stamped with the year 1934, the reference date applied to the agency’s founding and not the actual minting of the coins.)
Until this time, the Commission collected tolls manually as cash, or in the form of commutation tickets that afforded regular bridge users reduced rates of passage. The tokens were sold in rolls of 40 and enabled regular commuters to cross Commission toll bridges at a reduced cost, a toll discounting practice that continues to this day through the agency’s E-ZPass electronic toll collection program. (The old tokens are a coveted collectible by highway enthusiasts around the country and can often be found for sale on e-Bay.)
With each passing year, the state-owned bridges the Commission operated and maintained for Pennsylvania and New Jersey presented continuing challenges. These so-called “free” or “tax-supported” bridges consisted largely of two-lane truss spans across masonry piers originally constructed in the 19th century to support privately owned wooden covered bridges. At least one of these bridges, Riegelsville, still had a wooden road deck despite the availability of steel open-grid decking since the early 1930s.
Noting the rapid aging of these spans, the Commission reduced the load limits on a variety of these older bridges during the 1960s and 1970s and launched feasibility studies to replace some of them, including Calhoun Street (the Commission’s oldest superstructure), Washington Crossing (the Commission’s narrowest span), Riegelsville (the Commission’s only vehicular suspension bridge), and Riverton-Belvidere (the Commission’s northernmost through-truss bridge). The pursuit of a replacement bridge for the Calhoun Street location was particularly contentious, as the proposal called for a six-lane, low-level toll bridge that Morrisville Borough fought on the grounds that it would have harmed local businesses and negatively impacted the community’s street system. The experience was a contributing factor for the Commission’s later general policy of preserving, where feasible and appropriate, its inventory of historic bridges.
Like other toll agencies in the country, the Commission weathered two major oil embargoes and resulting gas crises in the 1970s. It was during this period that new terms like “data processing” and “computerized toll collection and recording systems” began creeping into the Commission’s vernacular for the first time. The Commission purchased its first computer system for tabulating toll collections in 1975.
New Mandate and a New Bridge
By the end of 1980, the total annual traffic figure for the Commission’s bridge system was 72,602,610—roughly 20 percent more than the 60,389,480 total crossings recorded in 1970. Traffic growth remained the overriding dynamic for the Commission throughout the 1980s and the 1990s.
Vehicular crossings rose exponentially throughout the agency’s jurisdiction as sprawling office and warehouse parks, large planned communities, major shopping malls, and new regional attractions, housing developments and businesses sprang up in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and Pocono Mountain regions, along I-95 in Bucks County, Pa. and around New Jersey’s Princeton-Route 1, I-80 and I-78 corridors. Each year saw more trucks, more commuters and more travelers using the agency’s bridge system.
Toll bridges continued to see unbridled traffic increases, but the traffic rates at non-toll crossings remained relatively steady, save for one exception: the Scudder Falls (I-95) Bridge linking Mercer County, N.J. and Bucks County, Pa.
During the 1970s, traffic at this location more than doubled—from roughly 4.8 million vehicles in 1971 to 10.6 million vehicles in 1980. By 1983, the bridge’s annual traffic total surpassed that of every other bridge in the Commission’s system, with early-morning commuters experiencing increasing delays when travelling from Pennsylvania to New Jersey on the narrow two-lane, shoulder-less span. The growth trend continued throughout the 80s and 90s, with 20 million vehicle crossings recorded in a single year for the first time in 2000.
Governance wise, a major change in the Commission’s bi-state agreement and federal compact occurred in 1984 when Pennsylvania and New Jersey charged the Commission with assuming full financial responsibility for the 13 non-toll bridges within its jurisdiction. Prior to that time, the costs of operating and maintaining the non-toll bridges were financed by appropriations from the two states.
Ownership of the state-owned bridges was not fully transferred to the Commission until July 1, 1987. With the transfer of ownership, the 13 non-toll spans became “toll-supported bridges,” a designation reflecting the fact that a portion of the tolls collected at the Commission’s toll bridges are used to finance the operation, maintenance and security of the non-toll spans.
To this day, the Commission is a self-supporting entity receiving no federal or state subsidies for its operations.
The 1984 agreement had an additional noteworthy change for the Commission: a provision pertaining to construction of a seventh Commission toll bridge that would one day carry a long-proposed interstate highway—I-78—across the Delaware River. It stipulated that the eventual I-78 river bridge would be operated and maintained by the Commission as a toll span and the agency would be responsible for the non-federal share of construction costs for the bridge and approach highways extending from the bridge to the first interchanges in each state.
The I-78 Toll Bridge opened to traffic on November 21, 1989. The event marked completion of the last segment of I-78, a 144-mile interstate highway between Harrisburg, Pa. and the Holland Tunnel linking New Jersey and Lower Manhattan. The new river connection soon demonstrated its worth, providing an additional travel route to and from the Lehigh Valley.
The new bridge also helped to alleviate mounting traffic congestion along Route 22 in the Easton-Phillipsburg region, which carried more than 17 million vehicles alone in 1988.
The I-78 Toll Bridge had a unique distinction from the Commission’s previous six toll bridges: its toll plaza was constructed to accept tolls in only the westbound direction. Earlier in 1989, the Commission converted its two-way toll plazas at the Delaware Water Gap (I-80), Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) and Portland-Columbia toll bridges to westbound-only collections. The Trenton-Morrisville (Route 1) Toll Bridge was converted to one-way collections in 1992; the two remaining toll facilities were converted in later years. These changes were made in an effort to reduce congestion and enhance efficiency at the Commission’s toll crossings.
Modernizing for a New Century
In its first full year of operation in 1990, the I-78 Toll Bridge carried more than 8 million vehicles, a first-year record for a new Commission toll bridge. The bridge also enabled the agency to reach a major milestone in 1990: it marked the first time traffic at the Commission’s toll bridges (54,314,407 vehicles) surpassed the levels of its non-toll bridges (50,277,254 vehicles).
This was the second significant traffic milestone in three years; in 1988, the Commission’s total annual vehicular crossings surpassed the 100 million mark for the first time.
Rising traffic volumes and the relatively new responsibility of operating the entire 20-bridge system only with revenues collected at the seven toll bridges presented a series of new challenges for the Commission, most notably in the areas of management and efficiency. A comprehensive management review of the agency was conducted by the two states during the 1990s, resulting in a transition to a new management team charged with the directive to improve organizational effectiveness, accountability, and customer service. At the time, the Commission’s headquarters possessed three computers with no ability to exchange data. Its toll-collecting equipment and systems were outdated, consisting largely of mechanical coin-collection devices and bulky, antiquated main-frame data processing systems. The agency’s network of bridges and toll plazas, meanwhile, was in need of serious attention.
$1.1 billion Capital Improvement Program
The Commission launched a four-year long capital improvement program to enable the agency to better fulfill its central mission of providing safe and efficient river crossings. Now anticipated to total more than $1.1 billion, the capital improvement program has already achieved numerous successes—some of which are explained in detail elsewhere in this annual report.
In 2002, the Commission began transitioning all of its toll bridges to the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system, reducing queuing and congestion for customers. More than 60 percent of revenue is now collected electronically. Radio communications, security, and computerization are now up to current standards. And the Commission’s administrative headquarters has moved to newer—and more centralized—offices adjacent to the New Hope-Lambertville Toll Bridge in Solebury, Pa.
At the close of 2009, half of the Commission’s 20 bridges have undergone rehabilitation, widening, or improvement under the program. Future capital improvement plans include the replacement of the existing commuter-choked Scudder Falls (I-95) Bridge with a new facility, including overhauled interchanges and a widened Pennsylvania approach roadway.
Open road tolling—electronic toll paying at highway speeds—will be installed at the Delaware Water Gap (I-80) and I-78 toll bridges in 2010. Meanwhile, traffic-control arms should be removed at all seven toll bridges and three bridge rehabilitation/improvement projects are expected to be completed by the end of 2010. Additionally, in 2010, the capital program is expected to begin the planning process for the rehabilitation of the Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge, the envisioned span that led to the Commission’s creation 75 years ago.
The agency that ended its first year of operations with 20 million vehicle crossings in 1935 now handles roughly 140 million crossings annually. Total traffic during its first 75 years of operation (January 1, 1935 to December 31, 2009) exceeds 5.3 billion vehicular crossings. The Commission currently operates seven toll bridges, 13 non-toll bridges—two of which are pedestrian-only facilities—and an additional 36 approach structures (smaller overpass/underpass type bridges) throughout its river region.
While traffic numbers, bridge structures and legislative mandates are at the Commission’s core, the agency’s soul has always been the collective body of men and women who have made the agency work so successfully through the decades: Commissioners who set policy and authorized scores of projects overseen by the agency’s executives and engineers; bridge officers who prevented oversized or overweight vehicles from crossing and damaging the agency’s historic spans; maintenance crews that plowed and salted bridges and approach roadways during major storms; toll booth attendants who provided directions to tourists or out-of-state truckers, and scores of other individuals who worked behind the scenes in positions that ultimately enabled the agency to provide efficient, cost-effective transportation facilities and services to the travelling public.
It is by virtue of the work of all these individuals over the past 75 years that the Commission continues with its transportation mission for the residents of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, fulfilling the agency’s motto: “Preserving Our Past, Enhancing Our Future.”