Preservationists look to maintain historic Cribari Bridge
WESTPORT — With recent news of funds being allocated to make significant repairs to Cribari Bridge, local preservationists are preparing to ensure the historic structure is maintained.
John Suggs, a founding partner of the Westport Preservation Alliance, said this isn’t the first time his organization has worked to ensure the bridge’s historic structure is maintained.
“The Preservation Alliance has been fighting this for four years now,” Suggs said.
In recent years, the state Department of Transportation has explored rehabilitation for the 135-year-old swing bridge.
In July, a draft of 2021-2024 projects for the Southwest Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Improvement Plan included $20 million in fiscal year 2023 and $20 million in 2024 for the rehabilitation or replacement of the bridge.
In 2017, the town saw itself in a similar position with $40 million being set aside for repairs to the bridge. Suggs was one of many who led the charge to see the funds removed.
“We orchestrated a huge letter-writing campaign. Hundreds and hundreds of letters to the first selectman and DOT,” Suggs said, adding they would organize the same grass roots movement again.
Ultimately, First Selectman Jim Marpe and fellow members of the planning organization chose to deny the funding, citing uncertainty of the state’s plan. Now, Suggs said it’s important a message is sent sooner rather than later that Westporters’ sentiments for the bridge has remained unchanged.
“They know what Westport wants,” Suggs said of the DOT. “The overwhelming majority wants to keep the trucks off the bridge. The only way to keep the trucks off is to keep that bridge as is.”
Morley Boyd, member of the WPA, said Cribari Bridge is the oldest active bridge of its type in the nation. In addition to the bridge’s historic significance, he said there is a role even non-preservationists appreciate.
“The non-standard geometry of the bridge acts as a sort of traffic filter,” Boyd said. “Due to its non-standard height it keeps out a lot of commercial truck traffic and because of it’s narrow width it slows traffic down.”
Boyd joined the project’s advisory committee, which he noted was able to insert a conservation alternative as one of the many potential plans for the bridge. As a preservationist, he said this was the plan they will continue to push for.
“Our position is that the bridge should be conserved in its current geometry,” Boyd said, adding it was important to keep the character defining aspects of the structure.
Naturally, maintaining those key aspects was important to Suggs as well.
“It’s an icon to our community. It’s part of us. It’s part of our history,” Suggs said of the bridge. “We preserve this bridge because it preserves us as a community.”
Helen Gartner, a former selectwoman and current WPA member, echoed Suggs’ sentiments.
“It’s evocative of the days when Saugatuck was an industrial center and it’s beautiful,” Gartner said of the bridge. “It’s really a symbol of Westport.”
But those at the state level say the bridge is in need of some significant repairs.
Priti Bhardwaj, a transportation supervising engineer with the DOT, said her department inspects state bridges every two years. In 2016 the department saw deficiencies in the aging structure, which was built in 1884, and started to plan for improvements.
“There are needs on this bridge for rehabilitation work due to vehicular damage to the ornamental truss as well as the corroded pile cross bracing,” Bhardwaj said. “That’s why a project was initiated.”
The allocated funds for the project is a conservative number for planning purposes, she noted.
“We naturally pick the conservative number for a bridge replacement, but that doesn’t mean that it was already precluded we’re automatically going to be replacing the bridge,” Bhardwaj said, adding 80 percent of the funds is federal dollars and 20 percent state funding.
Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman, said because the bridge is so narrow, its truss system has sustained significant damage over the years.
“That truss system is very exposed and it shows the battle scars of vehicular impact, which seems to be common. We’ve had to make repairs to the system,” he said, referring to repairs made in 2018.
That same year, DOT also put a 20-ton limit on the bridge due to the structure’s aging.
Nursick said while the bridge is in poor condition, the DOT has continued to ensure it is safe for travel.
“We will keep Band-Aiding it as we have been to make sure the public’s safe, but ultimately something substantial needs to be done with the bridge,” he said, adding if it ever got to a point of being unsafe DOT would close the bridge.
“You don’t want to ever see it come to that,” Nursick said. “I don’t have any lack of confidence that we will get a project done and something squared away before we get to that point.”
An ongoing environmental assessment will narrow down potential plans for the bridge. While the bridge is property of the state, Nursick said his department looks to find amicable solutions and is confident the DOT and town will find some form of consensus.
“We’ll do what we can within reasonable confines to take public input and community concerns into consideration, and build that into the project,” Nursick said.