Woog’s World: Thinking about Westport’s infrastructure needs

Three days after Democrats suffered resounding national defeats — with voters blaming them, in part, for not delivering on campaign promises — Congress approved the largest public works bill since President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system.

With President Biden’s signature, enormous sums of money will be available to fix America’s ailing roads, bridges, tunnels, train tracks and transit systems. Every community has different needs. But nearly all need something.

Including Westport.

Our town looks gorgeous. Real estate agents lure new homeowners here by showing off our river, beaches and more. But they drive strategically. The Cribari Bridge offers a wonderful, small-town view — provided it doesn’t take 20 minutes to get there, on a painstaking crawl through Saugatuck. Downtown is delightful, just don’t get there via the Post Road/Route 33 intersection.

I’m not sure of every detail in the massive infrastructure bill. I’m sure those who voted on it, yea or nay, don’t know either. But there are piles of money for infrastructure improvements. So let’s start thinking about Westport’s needs.

Traffic is our number one infrastructure problem. Our main roads are old (the Post Road once delivered “the post”; Kings Highway was actually named for “the king”). They’re narrow relics from an earlier time. We can’t do anything about that. Nor can we solve problems like volume (or bad drivers). But investing money into technology to better time our traffic lights — and sense when drivers are waiting, or not — could make major improvements in the flow.

It’s true that solving a traffic problem in one area could lead to unintended consequences elsewhere. But a comprehensive, computerized high-tech system would help make life here even better. And more economically productive.

The Cribari Bridge (mentioned earlier) is 133 years old, and shows its age. Federal funds could help rehabilitate it. But, here’s the rub, they must be contingent on a design that does not encourage more traffic (including 18-wheelers) to and from I-95 exits 17 and 18. No amount of infrastructure money can solve the problem of narrow roads and tight turns through Saugatuck.

Of course, if money from the infrastructure bill could somehow solve the problem of increasing traffic on 95 itself - including the absurd number of accidents that send drivers scrambling for alternate routes - that would be a godsend to all.

I’m sure Metro-North is in line for federal dollars. Railroads can be an efficient way of moving many people from one point to another, quickly and safely. Yet today’s commuters take longer to reach Grand Central than their parents (and grandparents) back in the mid-20th century. Improvements to our rail system (with perhaps a few dollars to spruce up Westport’s two stations) would yield enormous economic and lifestyle benefits, and take cars off nearby I-95.

We don’t always think about the importance of railways to Westport. Nor do we consider the Saugatuck River. It was our original commercial engine. We no longer rely on it to ship goods to New York. But, recreationally and also economically, it could add untold benefits to our town.

Imagine restaurants with docks for boats and piers by the Levitt Pavilion. More paddleboard, kayak and canoe rentals, up and down the river. The same thing north of the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge (and a pedestrian pontoon bridge linking Parker Harding Plaza with the west bank, near Bartaco).

None of that is possible without dredging. The last such project was decades ago. It’s time to do it again. It’s expensive, but that’s what infrastructure dollars are for.

Back downtown, I can’t imagine an infrastructure project more important than Parker Harding. Ever since a big, ugly, soul-sucking parking lot was created behind stores on the west side of Main Street - yes, it’s all landfill - we’ve shut the river off from the rest of downtown. Reimagining or restructuring the lot - perhaps even removing it, building a parking structure elsewhere, and replacing it with a park, athletic fields, and other amenities - would give all of downtown a healthy environmental boost. Not to mention a much-needed shot in our retail arm. Westport would be vibrant, fun and economically jet-powered.

Which, after all, is the aim of the infrastructure bill. The goal is to pay for improvements to our aging buildings and structures, and rejuvenate our neglected natural resources. For too long, we - as a nation, and a community - have kicked those cans down the road.

More than 60 years ago, some of those roads were built as interstate highways. They’ve served us better than anyone could have imagined back then. Now it’s time to rebuild those roads — and the rest of our infrastructure too. If we do it right, Westporters in the 2080s will still be thankful.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.