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Is the South Street Bridge falling down?

The question is on the minds of Philadelphia residents, Penn students and local officials, especially in the wake of the fatal Aug. 1 rush hour collapse of the heavily traveled Interstate Highway 35 West bridge in Minnesota.

Added to this concern is the occasional chunk of concrete that falls from the bridge into the Schuylkill River below and the ominous fact that the South Street Bridge has a lower structural sufficiency rating than the ill-fated bridge in Minnesota before its collapse.

Based on inspections by government engineers, who assign a grade between 0 to 100, the South Street Bridge has a rating of 15 - the I-35W Bridge was rated at 50.

"This bridge is in very poor condition and needs to be replaced as soon as possible," said David Perry, the chief engineer for surveys and design at the Philadelphia Department of Streets, which manages many of the city's bridges.

However, Perry said there is no immediate danger that the closely monitored bridge will collapse.

Reconstruction - which will cost more than $50 million - is slated to begin in the spring of 2008.

Perry said the South Street Bridge is the Department of Streets' "number one priority."

Built in 1926, the bridge is a major thoroughfare connecting University City to Center City.

It will be completely closed for two years during the reconstruction.

Vehicles weighing more than six tons have already been banned from the bridge, a decision Perry, who is overseeing the reconstruction, called "drastic" and indicative of the bridge's deterioration.

Both the bridge's instability and its inevitable closure pose problems for those who depend on it.

"Yeah, it's a little freaky," said 2007 College alumna Emily Weitberg. She works at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, located at 3400 Spruce St., but lives on the east side of the bridge.

"What concerns me . is how I'll get to work if they close it down," she said.

Conny Purtill, a graphic designer who lives on the east side of the bridge but does business in University City, agreed that the closure would be inconvenient but said that "you can't really argue against it," he said.

Repairs of the bridge have been 11 years in the making, and arguments have been made against the proposed design of the new bridge.

Both Philadelphia Inquirer Inga Saffron architecture critic, and Terry Gillen, the Democratic leader for Philadelphia's 30th Ward, have been vocal opponents of the current plans to replace the bridge, citing what they see as failures in urban design.

Critics contend that the design is unfriendly to pedestrians and bicyclists and is aesthetically unappealing.

Gillen feels her ward, which runs along the east side of the bridge, was left out of the discussions among local politicians that determined the design of the new bridge.

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