Debate swings to how ‘deteriorated’ is Bridge Street bridge?
“Deteriorated.” That term appears appropriate relating to a gathering controversy over the condition — and future — of the historic Bridge Street bridge spanning the Saugatuck River.
A member of the Representative Town Meeting was contacted by constituents about the status of the swing bridge — formally, the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge — after the state Department of Transportation announced that it is conducting a study of whether to repair or replace the span, which was built in 1884.
While First Selectman Jim Marpe said he was told by DOT representatives in conversation the bridge is “severely deficient structurally” — stated in information his office provided to the press and public — the DOT officially reports the overall condition of the bridge is “fair.”
“The overriding concern is the perception that many people had in the community that the bridge was not safe,” said John Suggs, RTM District 5, who sought clarification from the DOT on the bridge’s condition. “That was why back in September we sought definitive answers with specific terminology.”
“People were afraid … There was comments made by parents about whether it was safe for their children to go over the bridge,” Suggs said. “There was numerous comments made in Dan Woog’s blog … It was a constant refrain. People were scared. My constituents were scared and that’s what I told the state.”
“The result was, on Friday of last week we received written notification informing us, and thereby informing the whole town … that the bridge is safe and it is in fair condition,” he added.
The state’s study of the span, which carries Route 136 over the Saugatuck, is not expected to be completed until next April. The study will also include a survey of traffic on streets in the area of state Routes 1, 33 and 136.
Marpe’s office, in conjunction with state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, has scheduled a Nov. 23 meeting at Town Hall with DOT officials to get clarification on the status of the bridge and for public comments on its future. The session will start at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall’s auditorium.
“The intent is to have ample opportunity at that session for public comments of all kinds,” Marpe said in announcing the meeting. “People have a variety of concerns so I want to be sure that … people are able to voice them early enough in the process so that it’ll have an impact on the DOT’s thinking.”
“There’s clearly a lot of interest in the future of that bridge,” he said, “the study of that bridge by the DOT, and the historic aspects of it.”
“The other piece is so that the Westport community can hear directly from the Department of Transportation on their perspective on why are they even studying the bridge for rehabilitation. What’s the rationale?”
“We also think it best to secure as many opportunities as possible for people to engage the DOT,” Steinberg said, “so that the town’s preferences, particularly regarding preservation, are heard and assimilated into their thinking.”
According to Priti Bhardwaj, transportation supervising engineer with the DOT, while the bridge is rated in “fair” condition at a number 5, on a scale of 0 to 9, it has also been described as “ ‘functionally obsolete’ because it has a substandard geometry for both roadway width and vertical clearance, according to current standard of use.”
The trusses of the bridge are also rated at 2, “critical to serious, due to the extensive impact damage to the members.” These, however, are ornamental, but while they don’t actually support the bridge they are holding up their own weight.
Regardless of how the Bridge Street bridge’s condition is categorized, Steinberg said the issue in question may relate more to whether the current bridge itself is obsolete “as required by current DOT standards.”
“As often is the case, the compromise — if one is required — may come down to money. Will the town be willing to pay difference if it desires exceed the cost of the DOT’s proposal?” Steinberg said, adding that it may be too early to have that conversation.
“Let’s see what happens on the 23rd,” he said.
The meeting will include several DOT representatives, including project engineers, a National Register of Historic Places specialist, and an architectural historian.
Suggs, meanwhile, along with preservationist Wendy Crowther, Selectman Helen Garten and local historian Morley Boyd, are applying to the state to have a 1.2-mile stretch of Route 136, from the western edge of the bridge up to the corner of the Post and South Compo roads, classified as a state scenic highway.
“It hopefully would also make it much more likely that the bridge will be preserved,” Suggs said of the designation, noting it would be the first such scenic highway solely within the boundaries of Westport.
“Our hope is to preserve the bridge and to continue to maintain it …” he said, “because it’s such an iconic piece of our community.”