It is safe to say that the George Washington Bridge has never had a tie-up this long.

More than 14 months after the Edgemont Memorial Park bridge was battered and made impassable by Hurricane Ida, there is finally a plan for its dismantling, though the opening of a replacement is unlikely to happen before next summer, 2nd Ward Councilor Robin Schlager said on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

A small gem, the bridge, now barricaded, has become an eyesore engulfed by a mystery — why has it taken so long for a new walkway to be installed?

The blame perhaps lies less with Montclair and more with bureaucratic entanglements stretching from Trenton to Washington, said Schlager, citing an update from the township’s director of Community Services and Public Works that was relayed to her.

The update, Schlager said, lays out a fitful trail of starts and stops that still bewilders her.

“I want it to be the best it could be and as safe and beautiful as it can be, but it’s extraordinary how long it is taking,” Schlager said. 

Initially, there was a hope that the township could make quick repairs on the bridge, but lesser storms after Ida continued to weaken the span and its foundation. Attempts to hire a contractor were rebuffed because no one wanted to take on the liability of constructing a bridge, even a tiny footpath like this one, Schlager said, again referring to the update she received.

At the same time, according to the information Schlager was given, regulations from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection required the township to order up an engineering design. Then, Schlager said, with the township having included the damage to the bridge in the losses created by Ida, FEMA entered the picture, further slowing the process.

The small bridge with a brick herringbone surface has served as a key artery, crossing over a brook in the northeast part of the park. With the adjacent Edgemont Park house serving as a senior center, and the park's expansive pond on the other side of the house, the bridge’s closing has created an obstacle. Walking to the other side of the park has required taking a roundabout path, a hardship for many visitors.

Even with a contractor now in place, it doesn’t seem that things will speed up much from here, according to an engineering report, Schlager said. The council member said she had long grown impatient and confounded that such a seemingly small project could move at such a slow pace — particularly since the deadline for bids was nearly four months ago, on July 27. 

“It is astonishingly frustrating,” Schlager said. “One might say the buck stops with me. I’m a council person. I’ve asked monthly for an update on the bridge, and it has been one obstacle after another. I just scratch my head.”

Schlager shared the latest briefing from Neglia Group, the engineers hired by the township, and it reads more like a NASA report than the plan for a tiny footpath. The actual construction of the bridge will happen offsite before it can be ensconced into the park’s landscape.

“Geotechnical investigations were performed on-site as of November 8, 2022,” the report says. “We anticipate 1-2 weeks for the completion of soil testing and report for results.

“New bridge design is anticipated to begin after Thanksgiving. Once all bridge submittals have been reviewed and approved, it is expected to take approximately 3-6 months for bridge fabrication to be completed. Once fabrication is complete, installation of the new bridge can begin.”

Meanwhile, at an unspecified date, according to the report, the existing bridge will be destroyed, though this, too, suggests that more impediments are in the offing. The site has to be secured “from any hazards that may be present until the new bridge can be installed,” the report says. A promise that this part of the project is expected to start in the “coming weeks,” is coupled in the report with the caveat that “no date for this work has been determined yet.”

The bridge with its black metal handrails, near Valley Road and Parkway, offered a quaint grace note and a way to negotiate a path through the park.

In a letter to the editor In Montclair Local this past June, Belinda Plutz, a town resident, called the loss of the bridge “unacceptable” as she was anticipating summery days.

“It has been unusable for months, and summer is when people of all abilities want to get out and enjoy the park,” Plutz wrote.

Ann Lippel, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, said she hoped a new bridge would accommodate people with disabilities.

“We hope that it has rails to provide extra security and takes into consideration that the Edgemont Park House is the only township-managed venue for programs for older residents,” Lippel said. “The bridge, like the park house, should be senior-friendly.”