Last updated: July 08. 2014 11:23PM - 1394 Views
By - mguydish@timesleader.com

The newly renovated Veterans Memorial Bridge opened all lanes between Wilkes-Barre and Kingston to traffic Tuesday morning.
The newly renovated Veterans Memorial Bridge opened all lanes between Wilkes-Barre and Kingston to traffic Tuesday morning.
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WILKES-BARRE — It caused a dip in used car sales at Wyoming Valley Motors’ Pierce Street location.

The deli across the street took a hit in sales, too, and deliveries to the other side of the Susquehanna River often took longer thanks to detours.

It slowed a King’s College priest’s frequent visits to the Kingston and points west. And it kept causing these and other problems, month after month, for more than two years.

On Tuesday, the travails finally ended, as all four lanes of the Veterans Memorial Bridge — connecting Pierce Street in Kingston with North Street in Wilkes-Barre — were made available to motorists for the time since major construction began in August 2011.

“We’re thrilled the bridge is opened,” Wyoming Valley Motors General Manager Mary Anthony said after the last of the barriers disappeared. “Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!” Anthony paused, chuckled and then added, “Can you tell how elated we are?”

Working the counter at the Pierce Street Deli, Lisa McGahee expressed similar glee.

“We’re so glad the bridge is finally open!” she said with a big smile.

Deli Assistant Manager Tom Kuren concurred, noting business took “a significant hit” when construction started. It also made deliveries to Wilkes-Barre problematic.

Even if the food was going to, say, someplace as close as the Luzerne County Courthouse just across the bridge, it could be faster sometimes to use the Market Street Bridge instead.

‘Thank God’

Out for an afternoon walk, the Rev. Richard Hockman of King’s College paused at the junction of North and River streets to take in the view of a wide open bridge and said — perhaps inevitably, for a man of the cloth — “Thank God!”

Hockman said that while he lives at King’s, he frequently takes trips to the West Side and sometimes found himself stuck in traffic that could stretch almost all the way to Main Street, Wilkes-Barre. His first trip across the finished bridge, completely re-decked from pedestrian rail to pedestrian rail, was on foot though, to get some exercise.

“It looks really good,” he said, smiling as he crossed River Street and approached the bridge.

Traffic flow over the bridge has been restricted for so long that even those who didn’t have much reason to use it were grateful.

“Just last week my husband and I were in Wilkes-Barre and decided to go to Kingston for breakfast, and he turned onto the bridge,” said Elaine Stefanko, reader services coordinator at the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre. “It felt like we were stuck for 10 minutes.”

Stefanko lives in Larksville and rarely uses the bridge, opting to come to Wilkes-Barre via the Market Street span. But she made extra effort to avoid the construction zone for the last two years. “It was a mess for so long.”

Delivery issues

The construction caused a peculiar problem for Wilkes-Barre resident Shane Van Order, who does food preparation and other work at the Center City Cafe on Market Street.

He said he makes regular visits to offices in the Bernard C. Brominski building across North Street from the County Courthouse.

Pulling out of the Brominski building to go back into downtown Wilkes-Barre actually requires turning right, crossing the Veterans Memorial Bridge, turning around and crossing again. That maneuver had been particularly difficult with the bridge construction.

“I’m happy it’s finally finished,” Van Order said.

The bridge first opened in 1979, replacing a span that had been submerged in the 1972 flood caused by Hurricane Agnes. When the Susquehanna hit a new high water mark in the flood of 2011, the bridge was closed for a time until an inspection could be conducted.

But PennDOT Safety Press Officer Michael Taluto said the re-decking, which cost the state $6 million, was not the result of that flood and had been already scheduled to begin in 2012.

Average daily traffic prior to the construction would hit as much as 7,230 vehicles, according to data provided by Taluto.

Anthony, at Wyoming Valley Motors, is hoping that volume returns. She said new car sales did not suffer during the construction, but used car sales are more dependent on drive-by shoppers, and did decline.

“Construction vehicles were parked in front of the lot, people couldn’t see the used cars,” she said.

The work lasted for so long she’s concerned some people may have permanently changed their driving habits. “Once someone finds a different way to travel, you hope they don’t get used to that other traffic pattern,” Anthony said. “I hope everyone comes by to see the bridge.”

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