Editorial / A ghostly reminder about bridge repair
Published 4:34 pm, Thursday, February 23, 2012
A bridge is rather like the flashlight tossed in the kitchen utility drawer: We never think about it until it doesn't work.
In Fairfield County, we should know better.
It was less than three decades ago when a 100-foot section of the bridge carrying I-95 over the Mianus River in Greenwich collapsed. Three people were killed. And the only thing that contained the death toll was the time it happened. It was 1:30 in the morning on a Tuesday -- June 28, 1983 -- when all three northbound lanes plunged into the muddy river 70 feet below.
Had it happened eight or nine hours earlier -- at the height of the Monday afternoon rush hour -- the number killed would have been catastrophic.
So it was a sobering site this week when federal and local officials gathered in the shadow of Westport's Saugatuck Bridge to talk about an acute need for infrastructure repair -- in Connecticut and nationally.
A scant 13 miles from the Mianus River -- 12 exits on I-95 -- officials pointed to the Saugatuck Bridge as an example of spans that are "structurally deficient." State bridge inspectors say that designation does not mean the bridge is in danger of failing, but it needs repair. It carries more than 130,000 vehicles daily.
Standing beneath the bridge, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, said money to fix it could come if Congress approves increased infrastructure investment. That money would improve safety and efficiency of the highway and transit networks in the state and nation while at the same time creating construction jobs.
The Mianus River Bridge collapse sparked an era of increased spending and vigilance in Connecticut's state's bridge-inspection program. But over the 29 years since the failure, chronic pressure to cut spending has taken a toll.
The state Department of Transportation oversees 5,300 roadway bridges. Their average age is more than 47 years, according to the DOT. The agency also oversees 330 railroad bridges -- scores of those on the Metro North New Haven line that a couple thousand people ride in and out of Westport each day.
Often overlooked by the motoring public, railroad bridges can cause havoc when they are closed or malfunction. Trains don't detour easily, and anyone trying to get to Westport from New York one Sunday afternoon in October can attest.
The railroad swing bridge over the Norwalk River got stuck in the open position on Oct. 9 when a boat was allowed to pass. As a maintenance crew struggled with a faulty gear, trains were stalled on either side of the river for hours, and rail passengers had to be bussed across.
David Kooris is with the Regional Plan Association, an independent research group that helps plan long-term development in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metro area. He stood under the Saugatuck Bridge this week.
"At this location, you see both I-95 and the (Metro-North) New Haven Line, and we can't plan for roads and transit separately," he said.
In the past several years, road and bridge repair nationally has been funded in fits and starts by extensions of a law called the Surface Transportation Infrastructure Reauthorization Act. It expired 2½ years ago, and its most recent extension runs out March 31.
How to fund repairs in a stumbling block. Himes and U.S. Rep Chris Murphy, D-5, said they will vote against a Republican two-year plan because, they said, it would reduce money for Connecticut highway and transit improvements by $400 million over a five-year period.
So gentlemen, let's find a better way.
It's a good idea to check the batteries in that flashlight.
It's critical to keep our bridges in good repair. The Mianus River Bridge reminds us.