DOT faces crowd concerned about future of Saugatuck bridge
Little new information came to light Monday about the future of the Saugatuck swing bridge, but state officials tried to establish some “truss” with the Westport community, where preservationists have spoken out strongly against replacing the historic span.
Representatives of the Department of Transportation came to Town Hall on Monday night to detail its study of the span — formally, the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge — as well as to answer questions. The state has identified deterioration and repair issues with the 131-year-old bridge that carries Route 136 over the Saugatuck River, and plans to make its findings public next April.
Many at the forum, meanwhile, took the opportunity to express concern that increased traffic would clog the area with a new bridge, as well as restating their attachment to the historic structure itself and its distinctive value to the neighborhood.
“We already know of course that this bridge is one of the oldest movable bridges in the state of Connecticut,” said local historian Morley Boyd, but may in fact be “the oldest actively operated highway swing bridge in the nation that retains all its original spans.”
“The most pressing issue surrounding this bridge seems to be its historic nature,” said Mark McMillan, a National Register specialist with the DOT. He said that if it is determined that repair or restructuring of the bridge were to “reduce its historic significance” or have an “adverse effect” on the span, the process would move into legal mitigation through something known as a Section 106 Process. “As we move through this process … we’d be working with the municipality.”
He and others emphasized, however, that it is too early in the study process to determine what the future holds. Further, one DOT official said it could be in Westport’s best interest to consider major changes to the bridge.
“It needs to be understood that as much as we all may value this bridge, I think the (town) of Westport really needs to look at where we’d like to be 25 years from now,” said Timothy Fields, principal engineer. “Will this narrow bridge work well with your community?”
DOT officials said a wider bridge could offer better access for pedestrians and bicyclists. One of the state’s criteria in investigating the bridge is that both the span and Bridge Street (Route 136) are part of the East Coast Greenway Bicycling Route.
“Currently there is no dedicated bicycle lane or shoulder,” said Theodore Nezames, bridge manager.
“It’s nice to be able to walk across the bridge to that area,” said neighbor Kathleen Carey. “How can we encourage pedestrians to use the bridge more often?”
As it currently stands the bridge is not only “structurally deficient,” according to the DOT standards, but “functionally obsolete,” with a substandard roadway width at 19.5 feet versus the requisite 28-foot width on a new structure. The vertical clearance, which averages 13 feet throughout, should also be higher at 14 feet, state officials said.
While 7 percent of the state’s 3,998 bridges are currently considered structurally deficient, officials said that as one of its 60 “major bridges” in the state, the Saugatuck bridge is considered significant because it is crossed by about 13,100 vehicles each day.
“The role of the department, especially tonight, is not only to inform you and educate you as to the current statute … but it is also to seek your input so that we can further enhance our rehabilitation studies report,” said Priti Bhardwaj, project manager.
Nezames outlined the list of alternatives under investigation, and their viability, including taking no action regarding bridge condition, doing minor repairs and changing the street to one-way travel.
More likely to be considered is a major rehabilitation, which would likely involve widening and elevating the trusses.
“The last option that we are looking at is replacement of the existing bridge,” Nezames said. “We would be looking at a new bridge upstream and the new bridge would have a widened roadway that would accommodate pedestrian and bicycle travel.”
While he said it’s too early to know if that is a viable option, state statute requires that the DOT consider the possibility to evaluate a cost comparison.
“At the end of the day we don’t want to have a solution that is not going to work well with Westport,” Fields said.
Noting the bridge was “designed for horse and buggies, for wagons,” he added the DOT is “certainly open to suggestions … Don’t feel that the decision making could be totally disregarding input.”
“Westport is particularly effective in basically knowing how to work the system very well,” he said.