DOT: Cribari Bridge poses ‘safety hazard’

WESTPORT — It’s “Groundhog Day” in Westport, First Selectman Jim Marpe and several residents said about the resurgence of a project to fix structural and functional deficiencies in the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge.

A year ago, Marpe turned down $40 million in state and federal funding to design and rebuild the Cribari Bridge, which carries Route 136 over the Saugatuck River, saying he needed a clearer understanding of the project’s intentions.

Now, the state Department of Transportation has returned, this time with a safety inspection concluding repairs to the bridge must be made.

Cribari Bridge, originally constructed in 1884, underwent a superstructure replacement in 1991, during which the bridge’s original trusses, or triangular pieces, were retained as ornamental facade. While the superstructure is in fair condition, the trusses, which are not considered primary load-carrying units, are in critical condition, said Priti Bhardwaj, a transportation supervising engineer with the DOT who is serving as manager of the Cribari project.

“Even though they don’t carry vehicular live load, they do support their own weight and do pose a significant safety hazard if they continue to sustain vehicular damage,” Bhardwaj said during a Wednesday meeting about the project in Westport Town Hall.

The substructure of the bridge is in poor condition, Bhardwaj said, adding the geometry of the bridge deck is “basically an intolerable condition.”

“Frankly, the bridge is very very narrow and too narrow to carry the amount of traffic it carries, and by that standard is deemed as being functionally obsolete by FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) criteria,” Bhardwaj said.

Many of the bridge’s structural deficiencies cannot wait until the larger project begins, so the DOT has initiated immediate repairs to maintain bridge safety and stability. Construction on those repairs will begin July 30, according to a Wednesday news release from the first selectman’s office. The repairs are likely to take six weeks and will occur at night to limit traffic at the bridge during the day, the release said.

Several town historic preservation advocates, including Valerie Jacobs of Save Westport Now and John Suggs of the Westport Preservation Alliance, attended the DOT meeting. Both voiced frustration that DOT officials started the project on the premise the bridge is substandard, when the bridge is only substandard relative to the DOT’s guidelines and not criteria by which Jacobs and Suggs believe important — such as the bridge’s ability, due to its low clearance, to keep 18-wheeler trucks from entering town.

The Coalition for Westport member Jennifer Johnson said the bridge needs to be rebuilt for public safety, and that the town should examine other strategies to ensure a new bridge doesn’t become a bypass for Interstate 95.

The DOT plans to create a Project Advisory Committee of community stakeholders to advise on the Cribari project, which is expected to last about a year and a half according to officials. The next meeting will be in early fall.

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