RED HOUSE — More than four years ago, officials from the state DOT and Seneca Nation gathered to outline a plan to replace the decrepit Red House Bridge and rehabilitate nearly six miles of Old Route 17 between Salamanca and Steamburg.
The plan was met with much opposition that evening by those gathered at the Seneca Allegany Administration Building and talks eventually faded.
The discussion resurfaced in April 2012 when local resident Patricia John fell through the bridge to her death. More meetings were hosted on the bridge’s future and the Nation conducted a safety campaign to alert the community of the unsafe structure.
At that time, a spokesperson from the state DOT said a project to replace the bridge and rehabilitate the roadway was again in development, with an expected project letting of August 2013.
More than two years after John’s death, the bridge and road has yet to see major work but a new plan by the state DOT calls for the awarding of a contract next year to begin a project to replace the bridge and rehabilitate the road.
Susan Surdej, spokesperson for the state DOT’s Region 5, said the project is currently in the design phase but work would include replacing the Red House Bridge and rehabilitating Old Route 17 between Salamanca and Steamburg.
“I think everybody sees the need for the bridge to be replaced and there is a common goal that we are trying to reach here,” she said. “We are working very well with the Nation on it and that’s why we are confident we are going to have a project.”
Multiple calls made to Seneca Nation officials seeking comment on the status of the potential project were not returned.
The Red House Bridge was constructed in 1930 and carried Route 17 over the Allegheny River for decades. The road was replaced as the primary thoroughfare from Salamanca to Steamburg when present-day Interstate 86 was constructed in the 1970s.
Now known as Old Route 17, the road is closed for approximately three miles east and west of the Red House Bridge — from Bunker Hill Road in Steamburg to Breed Run Road in Jimersontown.
The closed section of the road has not been maintained since 1980 and the state DOT in 1988 gave the Red House Bridge a general recommendation of 1, the lowest level on its rating scale.
Now, slabs of the former road are sliding into the Allegheny Reservoir and the majority is littered with potholes or severely crumbling.
Some in attendance at the March 2010 meeting about the road’s future noted the closed road is frequented by ATVs and runs through a part of the Allegany Territory popular for outdoorsmen, hunters and fishermen.
It was also mentioned parts of the area are culturally significant, serves as a nesting and feeding area for eagles and ospreys and improving the road would only add to the problem of people stealing artifacts and trespassing.
Another concern was that fixing the road — which is generally straight — would lead to road racing with new, smooth pavement.
Following the death of John in 2012, the Nation alerted the public — especially the members of its community near the bridge — of the danger associated with the structure.
During a public community meeting in April 2012 in the Allegany Council Chambers, two objectives were discussed — making people more aware of the danger of using the bridge and looking to provide an alternative.
“The most important thing right now is getting the information out to the public as soon as possible regarding the safety of the bridge,” said SNI Transportation Manager Jody Clark at that time. “Tell your kids, tell your neighbors: the Red House Bridge is unsafe for passage. Do not attempt to cross the bridge.”
At the time, the Nation installed “Bridge Closed” signs on the entrances to the bridge. These deterrents are in addition to the roughly three miles of closed and non maintained road on each side of the bridge.
Should the state follow through with its plan to rehabilitate the road and bridge, it would provide a second route between Salamanca and Steamburg. When westbound Interstate 86 closed for a few weeks due to a sinkhole in 2011, traffic was forced to be detoured on the next closest route — via Routes 353 and 242 through Little Valley.
The state recently finished the major work on a $28.5 million rehabilitation project on Interstate 86 between Salamanca and Steamburg.
(This story appears in the April 24, 2014 edition of The Salamanca Press.)