By James Lomuscio
UPDATE Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe said it would be premature for him to make any decision on the offer Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) officials made to him today concerning the historic William F. Cribari Bridge.
He said a decision whether to accept it would require a lot of town meetings and public input.
CDOT Commissioner James Redeker met with Marpe today, offering a restoration plan for the 1884-built swing bridge currently on the National Register of Historic Places — and a proposal for rerouting Route 136. Marpe said it was similar to a state offer in the late 1980s on which no action was taken.
Redeker’s pitch presented by CDOT Chief Engineer Mark Rolfe was for the state to repair and to restore its bridge and to give it to the town — as well as the stretch of state-owned Route 136 over the bridge to Compo Road South all the way north to Post Road East.
Those roads would cease being state roads, and the town would take over all their maintenance and repairs.
In exchange, Route 136 would be rerouted from Compo Road North to the Post Road East heading west, over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge and onto Riverside Avenue to Saugatuck Avenue and eventually toward Saugatuck Shores, continuing to Norwalk.
“I think it’s premature for me to draw any conclusion at this point,” said Marpe. “There are pros and cons. The pros are retaining the bridge more or less in the form that it is that many townspeople favor and getting it into a state of good repair.”
However, Marpe said he is concerned about the possibility of increased traffic on Riverside Avenue, “and the as yet to be determined costs of taking over the responsibility of the roads and the operating cost of the bridge.”
“Somewhere in another 30 years there will likely be a need for other bridge repairs,” he added, which the town, not the state, would have to fund.
Saying that “everything old is new again,” Marpe pointed out that the state made the very same offer to Westport in 1986 the last time the bridge was restored during the administration former First Selectman Martha Hauhuth.
“It was considered by the town, but the town rejected it ultimately,” he said.
If the town rejects it this time, the alternative would be to proceed with the current state environmental assessment, Marpe said, which considers the bridge’s safety features, cultural role and historic significance to the town.
“We don’t know what the state really wants to do when they talk about rehabilitating the bridge, and we’re a year away from the environmental assessment’s completion,” Marpe said.
That uncertainty is why Marpe in early July rejected more than $40 million in CDOT funding, saying he we did not want to establish funding “where we might not be able to influence the outcome.”
He stressed the bridge’s historical, cultural and environmental significance might be at risk of being lost to major renovations, even replacement.
Last week Redeker contacted Marpe to arrange today’s meeting. Marpe invited town Finance Director Gary Conrad because costs would be involved in Redeker’s plan, as well as Public Works Director Stephen Edwards because it involved reshuffling town and state roads.
“I’d like us to as a community to take our time to evaluate this alternative, as well as others the state has been considering,” Marpe said.
“This is going to include a lot of community involvement and public hearings to assure that all the voices have been heard,” he added.
Melissa Kane, the Democratic nominee for first selectman, said the proposal required a close look.
” I believe this potential solution deserves careful study,” she said. “When we evaluate the proposal, we need to make sure that it meets our objectives at an affordable cost — to preserve the historic character of the Cribari Bridge while alleviating traffic in Saugatuck, as well as greater Westport.”
John Suggs, a Representative Town Meeting Member (RTM) who is running as an Independent for first selectman in November, criticized Redeker’s proposal.
Suggs, who has made the bridge a focus of his campaign, said that even if the CDOT gives the bridge to the town after making repairs, it would not be the same bridge. He said the state plans to widen it to accommodate eighteen-wheeler trucks and that the steel grate structure would have to be raised.
He also said the planned state restoration would also require that a temporary bridge be installed, as it was in 1986, and that the temporary structure would have a negative impact on the nearby Saugatuck Rowing Club property.
Click HERE for the CDOT proposal.
This story updates an earlier story with additional comments from Marpe, Kane, and Suggs as well as details of the proposal.