Cribari Bridge vote a murky situation
WESTPORT — With a landmark vote scheduled for August that will set the path for the future of the historic William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge in Saugatuck, First Selectman Jim Marpe is unsure how he will vote. The problem being, what is being voted on is still unclear.
On Aug. 17, the South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization is slated to vote on putting the 133-year-old bridge that spans the Saugatuck River onto the 2018-2021 Transportation Improvement Program, which all but guarantees the project to move forward toward rehabilitation or replacement.
The problem is it remains to be seen what the state Department of Transportation has decided to do to the bridge, making it unclear what project officials will be voting to put in the program, leading Westport officials to worry.
Should the regional planning board — composed of town leaders from South Western Connecticut towns and cities — accept the project, which would use an estimated $42 million in federal and state funding, the state Department of Transportation would be able to proceed with construction.
Last June, the DOT released a rehabilitation study report calling for either “major rehabilitation” or “structure replacement” of the bridge. Both options arrive at around the same price tag with replacement costing $41.4 million and renovation costing $41.2 million.
“We have not had the opportunity to review the preliminary design,” Public Works Director Steve Edwards said. “We’re being asked to vote on something without the complete deck of cards, we are trying to get that deck as full as possible.”
The bridge is the oldest movable span in the state and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Whether the bridge should undergo “light maintenance” or more substantial renovations and even full replacement has been a hot-button issue between preservationists and those looking to improve traffic and turn the bridge into an area more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Marpe said in an interview last year that he would stand up and fight against the replacement of the bridge. In a June 28 interview, Marpe said he doesn’t “know yet” how he plans to vote, noting there could be unintended consequences of voting for a design they don’t have yet and voting against adding the bridge to the TIP because it could result in a loss of funding for maintaining the bridge.
According to Edwards, DOT has not yet completed its design plans for the span. He also said that if the project is voted off the TIP, the DOT could close the bridge if it is deemed unsafe by an inspector. Last August, the Kings Highway North Bridge was closed after a DOT inspector deemed it unsafe.
The town staff plans to learn more in the coming weeks before the vote. “We expect to get more educated and want to know what our options are so when we vote one way or another,” Edwards said.
“Maintain it. Do the bits and pieces, but that’s it,” Suggs said.
“We’re telling them to take this out please,” he added saying he is relying on the SWRMPO to veto the project’s inclusion on the TIP.
Jennifer Johnson, former town transportation director and current RTM member, wants to further explore options with the state before deciding to cut off conversation. While she is fond of the bridge and would like to see it preserved, she said there are other avenues for addressing the bridge’s needs for rehabilitation.
“It is a historic bridge and it is a lovely bridge, but we cannot address our crushing traffic problems if we don’t address the bridge. It is a fundamental choke point (for traffic). And we need to find out a way to see how we can balance our concern about truck traffic being diverted off I-95 with our need as a community to provide multiple ways to get to the train station,” Johnson said.
Currently, the bridge is hard to bike across, and Johnson would like to see the town enlist a consultant to do a connectivity study to make the area more easily crossed by those not using cars.
“I want to ensure that there is funding for design,” she said. Johnson is not fundamentally opposed to replacing the bridge in order to open up the river access for more use and alleviate traffic congestion as long as the height restricts 18-wheelers from using the road. She also noted that the current bridge could be moved and preserved, like the Kemper-Gunn house.