Ancient South Norwalk railroad bridge malfunctions again

NORWALK -- Thousands of irate Metro-North commuters swarmed incoming buses at the South Norwalk Train Station and jockeyed for one of the 54 seats on a charter bus after the rail service provider once again had trouble with the 118-year-old Walk Bridge in South Norwalk late Friday afternoon.

Commuters flooded the Stroffolino Bridge making their way from the East Norwalk Train Station to the station in South Norwalk or visa versa, and the Walk Bridge troubles caused serious traffic ramifications during an already busy rush hour in East and South Norwalk.

"They definitely need to reinvest in infrastructure in this state," said Stratford resident Kheder Hassoun.

Hassoun and his friend Brett Voccola were on their way from Stratford to the first night of the Governor's Ball, a three-day music festival at Randall Island in New York City. They had missed the 2:44 p.m. train and caught the train shortly after 3 p.m.

"That 20 minutes put an additional two hours onto our travel," Voccola said.

After being informed of the bridge problems and being told busses were on their way, Voccola and Hassoun waited for a half hour with no sight of a charter bus and then started to walk to the Stroffolino Bridge.

Both men said they had hoped to arrive in New York City to see the indie rock band Phoenix at 6:30 p.m. but soon realized they'd be lucky if they caught that night's headliners, the newly reunited hip-hop duo Outkast.

Friday marked the second time in the past week-and-a-half that the Walk Bridge failed to fully close, leaving commuters on the single busiest rail line in the country stranded during rush hour. The bridge, which rotates to allow large boats on the river to pass, failed to close just before 3 p.m. Train service between South Norwalk and Grand Central Station was suspended, and commuters going toward New Haven had to find a way to the East Norwalk Train Station. Train service was restored at 6:20 p.m. Friday evening. 

The bridge last broke down Thursday, May 29 and took five hours to repair, causing day-long delays on the New Haven line of Metro-North.

Gov. Dannel Malloy called for a crisis summit with MTA officials as word of the rail line's newest blunder spread.

"This is now the second major failure in two weeks, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and causing unacceptable delays. Let me be clear, this is outrageous," Malloy said in a news release. "In speaking with MTA and Metro-North, my administration has stressed that every procedure, protocol and engineering solution must get the immediate attention of the most qualified team of experts."

Malloy said the MTA's newest woes are further proof that his plan to replace the bridge needs approval. In April, the state applied for $349 million in federal transportation funding to help replace the bridge. The request was part of a $600 million grant request to improve Connecticut's aging rail infrastructure.

"It should be noted that these most recent failures punctuate the absolute necessity for replacing this 118 year old bridge - a central link to the entire Northeast Corridor," said Malloy. "We simply cannot afford peak service disruptions like this, which is why we have requested and are aggressively pursuing federal resiliency funding for this exact purpose."

Norwalk Police lent a hand to MTA Police in controlling crowds. The local police department had to deal with a problem of its own, as traffic lights on West Avenue -- the street that most motorists use to access the South Norwalk Train Station -- began flashing yellow.

Chris Scofield was taking the train from his job in Stamford to his home in Stratford on Thursday when he became stranded in South Norwalk. He experienced a longer delay when the bridge broke down while he was en route to work May 29. He said he enjoys taking the train, and it helps with his personal finances. He said he is patient when it comes to delays on the rail line.

He took issue with the way MTA Police handled the shuttle buses. Commuters from the first stranded train were lined up and waiting for a bus when a second train emptied. Those passengers formed a separate line and the bus parked in front of those passengers, much to the protest of the other passengers. The passengers in the first line had to be prevented from obstructing the bus.

"It's quite the social experiment," Scofield said.