ORCA partners with local politicians to apply for grant for Lehigh Viaduct tunnels improvement project
By Melissa Komar
It’s no secret the Lehigh Viaduct tunnels connecting Somerset Street to Lehigh Avenue are not exactly a picturesque snapshot of Port Richmond.
The sidewalks underneath the structures and the grassy hills that lead to the train tracks above them are littered with a plethora of plastic bottles and food waste.
“[The tunnels] have been ugly for 25 years,” said Don Gould, Olde Richmond Civic Association president. “For 25 years, they’ve been dumping grounds. They’re five big, black holes connecting the neighborhoods.”
Stemming from its recent success with Saturday cleanups, ORCA wanted to take it a step further and is teaming up with local politicians to apply for a grant to change that reputation.
State Rep. Mike O’Brien, State Rep. John Taylor and Councilman Mark Squilla are helping the civic group submit an application to the Multimodal Transportation Fund.
According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development website, the purpose of the fund is to provide “grant to encourage economic development and ensure that a safe and reliable system of transportation is available to residents of the Commonwealth.”
Grants are available for projects that cost more than $100,000 and the maximum amount available is $3,000,000.
Grants “may be used for the development, rehabilitation and enhancement of transportation assets to existing communities, streetscape, lighting, sidewalk enhancement, pedestrian safety, connectivity of transportation assets and transit-oriented development.”
The safety of the residents is one of the top concerns for the elected officials.
“Protecting the health and welfare of our constituents is our primary goal and objective, and this project will allow our neighbors to the north to walk and travel knowing these areas are well lit to alleviate concerns of crime,” Taylor said.
The application must be submitted by July 31. If a grant is awarded, Gould hopes to have the project underway by next spring.
Multiple entities would need to sign off on the project including the Streets Department and ConRail and ORCA would hold public meetings to allow the community to provide feedback.
Ultimately, all five tunnels — Emerald Street, Belgrade Street, Tulip Street, Thompson Street and Aramingo Avenue — will get a complete makeover.
The first phase of the project would include replacing the current stadium lights with 246 LED high output lights. The lights and the work to install them will cost approximately $300,000.
The second phase of the project would include installing high-definition security systems, with 16 cameras in each tunnel. ORCA would raise the money for the systems.
The third and final phase would include painting murals on the walls of each tunnel. ORCA plans to work with Mural Arts Philadelphia to install the murals and estimates it will cost approximately $600,000 to complete.
“If you look at the mural along Lehigh Avenue, no one graffities on it,” Gould said. “We want to put something artistic on the walls to keep it clean and graffiti-free.”
With current estimates, the Lehigh Viaduct tunnels project will cost just under $1,000,000, according to Gould.
All aspects of the project are intended not only to beautify the tunnels, but to deter people from desecrating the space.
“You’re trying to get rid of issues that come up over and over again,” said Dan Martino, ORCA secretary. “And dumping just won’t go away. And it’s as simple as turning on the lights. We’re also hoping it will spur economic interest in the area.”
The elected officials agree.
“I hope that by paying the tunnels some much needed attention, we will be able to address the short dumping and trash issues that have plagued the underpasses for years,” Squilla said. “I believe that this, along with a some much needed beatification, will make this an even more attractive place and an asset to the Olde Richmond and Port Richmond communities.”
“The tunnels have been a blight and eyesore as long as can be remember,” O’Brien said. “By making these improvements, it will create a sense of place that will link these communities.”
While the hope is that the improvements will transform the tunnels, maintaining the sites once the lights are installed and the paint dries is also a priority.
ORCA is considering hiring an individual to keep the five tunnels clean once the project is complete.
Overall, the project is another reflection of ORCA’s ultimate goal for the community.
“Safe and clean, that’s our motto,” Gould said. “It’s to make Olde Richmond a safer place to raise a family.”
It’s the families that are at the heart of the vision for the long, bleak stretches of concrete and asphalt.
“We want to create a safer avenue for people traveling between Kensington, Port Richmond and Fishtown,” Martino said. “If a third-grader can walk to school safely under those tunnels, then we’ve done our job.”