Uncertain road ahead: Future of Bridge Street bridge debated
It’s been a landmark Saugatuck River crossing for more than 130 years, but the future of the Bridge Street bridge is uncertain.
That’s because the swing bridge — formally, the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge — has been identified by the state Department of Transportation as “severely deficient” and in need of extensive repairs, or perhaps complete replacement. The state plans a six-month study to detail deterioration of the span and recommend what can be done about the problem.
Locally, however, there is a range of views about what to do with the 287-foot-long bridge, built in 1884 and the platform for state Route 136 over the Saugatuck River.
The DOT report noted “extensive collision damage to truss members along roadway” of the bridge, girders exhibiting rust and the bridge abutments missing 50 percent of their mortar “with voids up to 4 feet deep between stones.” The piers on which the bridge is built also, according to the report, “exhibit areas of hairline cracking and spalling.”
The Bridge Street bridge is “high on the state’s list of deficient bridges in need of rehabilitation. In 1989 to 1991, rehabilitation to some elements of the bridge was performed. The bridge is in need of major work once again,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said in an announcement Sunday, confirming what has been a topic of concern for local historic preservationists over the last several weeks.
Among the major problems cited in the DOT report, Marpe acknowledged are:
Severely deficient structurally.
Substantially functionally obsolete — performance based on geometry, approach, narrowness.
Major traffic safety problems.
The “bridge is seriously deficient,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, noting it was a very old bridge, “but no determination has been made as of yet about repair versus replacement.”
“DOT has promised to keep me informed as their process progresses,” he said.
Since the issue has come to light, however, controversy has been festering over the best way to address the bridge’s future, culminating in contention that erupted at a meeting of the Historic District Commission earlier this month.
“Word got out that this was happening and alarms went off,” said Francis Henkels, chairman of the HDC. In his view, however, there are no steps the town needs to take at this point beyond waiting to see what the state wants to do.
“There’s been a movement started to designate it as a local historic property,” Henkels said. “We did some investigating, knowing that the bridge is actually owned by the DOT, and local historic designation can only actually be made without the owner’s objection. And in the case of this bridge being owned by the Department of Transportation, there’s some question that they may object to the designation.”
Beyond that, however, Henkels doesn’t believe such a designation would play any role in the state’s decision, as the bridge is already deemed a national historic landmark.
The HDC as a body, however, disagreed. In a 3-2 vote, it decided to endorse appointment of a committee to look into the issue of designating it a local landmark.
Others in town, including local historian and former commission member Morley Boyd, feel local steps need to be taken as soon as possible to preserve the span.
“In brief, I'm concerned that the town of Westport does not have a proper seat at the table regarding the disposition of this state-owned historic bridge,” said Boyd, who spearheaded the request to the HDC.
“Despite all the talk of promised public hearings, those typically take place well after the DOT has made up its mind,” Boyd said, noting that some believe the DOT is “already shopping for someone to construct a replacement bridge.”
“In order to send a clear message to the DOT, we need to move forward now with the process of designating the Saugatuck swing truss bridge as a local historic property, not wait until it's too late,” he said.
“I was disappointed by the odd lack of enthusiasm, to put it politely, exhibited by the HDC chair and vice chair for my historic designation proposal,” he said. “Certainly, I and many others would greatly prefer that the HDC remain focused on its mission to advocate for the conservation of Westport's historic built environment and cease allowing itself to become mired in politics.”
Henkels, however, said some people “view the local historic designation as a means of bringing additional pressure to the state … I don’t know if I agree with that. I think at this point, at this early stage, we have lots of options.”
As for the historic status of the span, Marpe, in his statement, said, “I was gratified to know that the state was aware of the bridge’s historic importance to the town and had included this important aspect at the onset of its planning efforts.”.
At meetings with state officials in July and August, Marpe said he “emphasized the importance of retaining the iconic aspects of the bridge's clearly defined superstructure along with its role in the history of the Saugatuck community,” he said. “The superstructure also plays an important role in limiting the type and speed of traffic that can travel through the Saugatuck neighborhood, on Bridge Street and Greens Farms Road.”
The first selectman also urged residents to “keep an open mind on the future of the bridge and to wait until we receive the completed engineering findings” before passing judgment on the state’s recommendations.
Henkels noted that in the late 1980s the state acquiesced to concerns from the town about the historic nature of the bridge. “It became a long, drawn-out battle … Ultimately, Westport did succeed in saving most of the structure of the bridge,” he said.
“The other thing that’s important is that this bridge … was already designated as a national historic landmark,” Henkels said, noting that in the case of state projects or federally funded projects, this carries much more weight.
Martha Hauhuth, who was first selectman when the future of the Bridge Street bridge was last in the spotlight, recently urged officials to work to save it.
In a letter to the Westport News, Hauhuth wrote that preserving the bridge was “a priority in my 1985 campaign platform and it was brought up and discussed at multiple meetings and debates during the election. It was clear people wanted to keep the bridge as it was. When I took office our state representatives and I immediately opened negotiations with the state and personally with the governor to repair and strengthen the bridge rather than replace it. It took time, patience and persistence, but eventually the Department of Transportation notified us that at our request they would repair, update and strengthen our historic bridge.”
Boyd, however, feels the town needs to act sooner rather than later.
“The bottom line is this,” he said, “as anyone who has dealt with the DOT will tell you, waiting until that organization has its ducks in a row is almost always fatal … The correct leadership call is to move forward decisively, now.”