IF THE DELAWARE River Port
Authority ever decides to install a full-scale security system on the walkway of the Ben Franklin Bridge, here's hoping it names it for the off-duty detective who was attacked on the walkway Tuesday morning.
Philadelphia homicide detective Betty Weighnecht was attacked while jogging the 1,750-foot span at 6:45 a.m., by a bike-riding dirtbag who ripped the gold chain off her neck, threw her cell phone into the river, hit her in the head with his gun and threatened to kill her.
Thankfully, he sped away, and Weighnecht was not critically harmed.
Frustratingly, the video image that police have of the thug who assaulted her is a blurry one taken by a surveillance camera that wasn't able to do the simple job of clearly taping people entering and exiting the walkway.
"We've been asking DRPA for years to get the right cameras on the walkway, but there's always hemming and hawing," says Matt Anastasi, a bicyclist who uses the walkway every day to pedal from his home in Collingswood, N.J., to his job at Penn.
He also represents the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia on DRPA's task force devoted to bikers and pedestrians, so he has sat through meetings where this stuff has been hashed over.
"DRPA has money for projects that have nothing to do with transportation," he says. "But there's no money for the kind of sophisticated walkway security that's common in New York, San Francisco and other big cities that understand that bridges aren't just for vehicular use."
DRPA's CEO, John Matheussen, begs to differ.
On May 12, he says, the agency underwent a massive switchover from analog to fancy digital technology on the existing cameras that survey the area's four bridges and the PATCO train line, allowing DRPA to capture and store more images.
The agency will also "phase in" another 220 high-tech cameras throughout the system in 2009, bringing to more than 300 the number of lenses trained on the system's users and infrastructure.
Matheussen said that "no less than eight" of those cameras dot the Ben Franklin Bridge. None of them are trained specifically on the walkway, however. Instead, they provide a sweeping view of the walkway, roadway and PATCO line (which runs alongside the bridge) and allow DRPA police to zoom in, pan out and swivel to and fro as needed.
As for the quality of the image caught on tape of Weighnecht's attacker, all Matheussen will say is that "we have an image" and that the agency is working with law enforcement on both sides of the river to make an arrest.
But, Anastasi argues, the search itself might be moot, had there been call boxes on the bridge so that Weighnecht might've alerted DRPA police sooner of her attack. Instead, she had to get to the DRPA police station on her own steam to make the report.
"If she'd been able to call ahead, they might've caught him coming off the bridge," says Anastasi.
Matheussen says that DRPA currently has no plans to install call boxes. Foot patrols and cameras, the agency's decision-makers believe, keep the bridge safe. Which is not to say, he hastens to add, that "sometimes, an awful incident like this happens, despite our best efforts."
Well, sure. But Weighnecht's case highlights yet again why it should stick in our collective craw that DRPA has become a piggybank for regional economic-development projects that have zilch to do with crossing the river safely.
This year, DRPA will spend $11 million on, among other expensive things, the President's House memorial near the Liberty Bell, a restaurant in Franklin Square, building demolition in Camden and the Lights of Liberty show.
All worthy endeavors. But no more worthy than the security measures that Anastasi and the nondriving constituents he represents wish were in place, right now, for walkway commuters on the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Things like call boxes. Cameras specifically trained on the walkway. Better snow and ice removal in the winter. Enough police patrols so that the walkway can remain open 24/7 the way bridges in other big cities are, instead of from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. (an improvement, actually, over the bridge's more limited hours a few years ago).
"How can we spend DRPA money on non-transportation projects, when the walkway," he says, which is certainly transportation-related, "isn't as safe as it could be?"
Maybe Weighnechet's attack will allow that question to spark the debate it deserves. *
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