By James Lomuscio
Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) officials came to Town Hall tonight “to engage the public and stakeholders” in their plans to either renovate or replace the historic William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge in Saugatuck.
About 75 persons attended tonight’s Town Hall meeting with Connecticut Department of Transportation officials. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
They got more than they bargained for.
State and local officials and many of the 75 persons gathered in the auditorium came out swinging.
Their demands of the CDOT bridge engineers and project managers seated at the dais? First, they vehemently said they wanted no new structure to replace the 1884-built swing bridge currently on the National Register of Historical Places.
Second, they want no renovations to the existing bridge that would increase the vertical clearance to 14 feet, 6 inches, thus attracting 18-wheelers. The fear is that trucks will choose Route 136 that crosses the bridge spanning the Saugatuck River, using the local neighborhood as a cut through area..
“This is more than a conversation about a bridge,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg. “It’s about the village of Saugatuck.”
Steinberg argued against replacing the bridge, which CDOT Project Manager Priti Bhardwaj said would cost more than $35 million and take between two-and-a-half to three years.
At the same time, Steinberg was adamant against the proposed $19.8 million renovation that would increase vertical clearance, so tractor trailers could use the bridge. The renovation would take the same amount of time as building a new bridge, according to the CDOT.
The CDOT report on the bridge was the reason for tonight’s Town Hall meeting. (click here) (CLICK TO ENLARGE) CDOT graphic
“Tell us you will put in height restrictions,” Steinberg said, adding that many townspeople would fight for it, not wanting to “be at the mercy of the DOT.”
“It can go easy, or it can go hard,” he added to a round of applause.
The CDOT held its last public information session in November and since then has worked on and recently released its “Rehabilitation Study Report: Rte. 136 Over the Saugatuck River,” which was tonight’s topic.
The reason for the study was that more than a year ago a CDOT inspection found structural and functional deficiencies in the 287-foot long, two-way bridge that serves 13,100 vehicles per day.
According to Bhardwaj, the four-span, steel, multi-girder bridge with an ornamental truss has a curb-to-curb width of only 19.5 feet, substandard considering a current, required width of 28 feet.
The narrowness, according to Theodore Nezames, CDOT manager of bridges, has been responsible for nearly a dozen accidents over the past five years that have damaged the trusses.
“We appreciate your concern for safety, but this part of Westport that has a historical presence,” said state Rep. Gail Lavielle. “It (the bridge) is a distinctive work of this community.
“The people here will be quite prepared to fight for it,” she added.
State Sen. Toni Boucher also railed against any renovation that would open the area to large trucks.
“If there’s a fight involved, you have a lot of fighters here,” Boucher said.
A CDOT photo shown tonight demonstrates the narrowness of the Cribari Bridge. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh, a Republican who is running against Steinberg, a Democrat, in November, said that her commission is “in step with preservationists and the HDC (Historic District Commission) in preserving this bridge.”
She also said that realistically it would take at least eight years before the project is completed. Walsh said that if the bridge were deteriorating at the rate the state says it is, the CDOT should make needed repairs now.
Selectwoman Helen Garten said that neither of the CDOT’s plans “will be welcome by the people of Westport,” since each calls for 13-foot-, 6-inch clearances, enough to accommodate big trucks.
“It would be posted for 13.3, and 18-wheelers would not be welcome,” Nezames responded.
Garten also raised the specter of eminent domain.
“You would definitely have to take property if you were going to build a new bridge,” Garten said, adding that the the replacement bridge would be further up the river.
Nezames tried to soften the idea of eminent domain saying, “All of our actions would require right of way and temporary easements.”
One of the CDOT photos shown tonight at the Westport Town Hall meeting. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
Francis Henkels, chairman of the HDC, said his commission has been monitoring the bridge plans, “and we’re in the process of undertaking Bridge Street as a National Historic District,” an effort preservationists say could thwart eminent domain.
“It is clear there’s much more study to be done and design work to be considered,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said at the meeting’s outset, setting the tone for what was to come.
“This appears to be an effort that will require another year (of discussions) in Westport, so that our community can preserve the historic nature of this bridge,” Marpe added. “I’m prepared to challenge all the assumptions and recommendations.”