NORWALK, Conn. – There are less disruptive ways of rebuilding railroad bridges, Patrick Sikes said Friday, of the state’s plans to replace its problematic, ancient, railroad bridge over the Norwalk River.
“The rush to have this done doesn’t really make sense to us and we would like a full examination of why it does, and that’s really the thing we are asking for,” said Sikes, a member of Norwalk Harbor Keeper, a conservationist group that has filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s plans to replace the aged Walk Bridge with a modern lift bridge.
Talk of environmental jeopardy was a key feature of Friday’s meeting in Cornerstone Community Church, which drew more than 40 people, with comments about the expense of Connecticut’s plans and assertions that there’s no need to keep the upper harbor open to tall-masted ships, as a lift bridge would do.
It shouldn’t cost $1.1 billion, Robert Kunkel said, with Tony D’Andrea replying that the estimate is $1.2 billion now.
“I haven’t heard any new estimates lately, but that doesn’t sound too different from the estimates we’ve been hearing all along,” Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King said in a Sunday email.
ConnDOT plans public information meetings about the Walk Bridge on May 22. The project has been at the “30 percent design” milestone for more than two years. King said she understands it will jump to the “60 percent” phase in June.
Connecticut’s drive to replace the Walk Bridge stems from major malfunctions in 2014, causing disruptions for thousands of commuters. In addition, ConnDOT says on its Walk Bridge website that the bridge is vulnerable to storm surges and “Continued maintenance cannot guarantee bridge safety and proper functioning for an appropriate length of time to justify the cost.”
ConnDOT in September 2016 announced that it had chosen the long span vertical lift bridge as its preferred option.
That bridge would go up 63 feet to mirror the height of the Yankee Doodle Bridge, the bridge that carries car traffic on Interstate 95 over the river, Kunkel said Friday.
“At this point in time there is really nothing that is going to travel up that northern end of the river because of the water depth, that will have a mast height, or a pilot house height, of 63 feet,” Kunkle said.
“I will tell you as a commercial shipping man, I have 17 freighters out at sea, globally, right now,” said Kunkel, president of Alternative Marine Technologies LLC. “For me to decide to go somewhere in a port where I have to sit and wait for two bridges to open, the Washington Street bridge and then the Walkway Bridge, is nothing but a delay and a cost to me as I am waiting to get to the terminal or the port that I am getting at.”
D’Andrea, a former Harbor Management Commissioner who served for years as its chairman, said the city is working to rezone properties along the upper harbor.
The Redevelopment Agency hired the non-profit Regional Plan Association (RPA) to draft a plan for the West Avenue/Wall Street area. That plan is undergoing a revision.
Rezoning the upper harbor “may sound beneficial on the face of it but, geez, when I was on the Harbor Commission we protected the upper harbor for industrial uses,” D’Andrea said. “So, you had to have a bridge that went up and down because there was tanks up there and all kinds of crap …. but if you are going to rezone it for higher and better use, for six-story residential condominiums to the waterfront, with the idea of beer gardens and esplanades, why then would we need a bridge that raises up that tall? … None of that makes any sense.”
There are 13 tall-masted ships that are stored north of the bridge during the winter, Sikes said, with Kunkel asserting that the Walk Bridge opened 31 times last year for one boat.
Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson asked why the bridge couldn’t be fixed.
It’s only a problem when it opens and closes, so common sense would suggest that it not be opened, Kunkel said, explaining, “I am not here to tell you I am a bridge expert but there is nothing that is a structural emergency at this point in time to replace the bridge.”
ConnDOT officials have said that the bridge is too old to leave in place.
“You can’t weld the bridge shut. You would have to get rid of that structure,” Mayor Harry Rilling said in March.
Harbor Management Commissioner John Romano in November 2016 said he’d weld it shut himself, but relayed ConnDOT thoughts that the bridge’s underpinnings and foundations are poor and would have to be replaced.
“There’s questions about the stability of the turnstile, which is why it has a problem opening and closing,” Kunkel said Friday, opining that the problems could be in the machinery or in the “bottom sinking,” but “there other ways to deal with that, injecting cement and other ways to fix that is not $1 billion, number one, and doesn’t require complete replacement at the tune of $1.1 billion.”
Johnson said there’s an untold amount of chemicals under the bridge, which would be dislodged during construction.
“Nobody is testing for PCBs, asbestos, lead, things that are in that 100-year old turnstile that will have to be pulled and removed to replace this bridge,” Kunkel said. “An outgoing tide can get into those oyster fields and we have seen nothing in the paperwork that talks about how we are going to test and make sure that all of us aren’t going to get sick from eating those oysters.”
Johnson said the Commission send ConnDOT a letter asking about the plans for a communication cable and, “They never gave us a straight answer.”
Kunkel said he’s done projects in Korea and Asia and there’s no way to stop waterborne pollutants from spreading.
“It can be as simple as test facilities that may shut the project down if it reaches certain levels but the bottom line, and the reason we are doing this educational work and why we have stood up as the Norwalk Harbor Keepers, is we don’t have those answers and nobody is giving us those answers,” Kunkel said.
ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker “gave one straight answer” during a recent meeting with Harbor Keeper, Sikes said. “In his point of view, it cannot be repaired, has to be replaced.”
“I am a seaman and I will tell you, anything can be repaired,” Kunkel said.
“My experience, going to public hearings where engineers are explaining things, is that they are not honest,” Robert Hard said. “They are disingenuous. They make an argument with a straight face that it costs more to build a fixed bridge than a lift bridge. How can that possibly be?”
“Since they are willing to get up in public and tell such fanciful stories it is not enough to ask them ‘Would you please give us your best view of an alternative?’ because that best view will be canted toward their preferred view, which is the one that they’ve got,” Hard said. “ … That is why I thought that Norwalk should have hired a bridge engineer who was serious about it.”
“The lawsuit could be settled by the hiring of an independent engineer. So don’t mistake us for just saying they claim that they look at it,” said Harbor Keeper President Fred Krupp, listed in the lawsuit as a plaintiff.
The Walk Bridge reconstruction will result in the “permanent disfigurement of our town,” Isabelle Hargrove said, criticizing the look of the lift bridge selected by ConnDOT.
The Maritime Aquarium will receive $18 million to “knock down the IMAX theater,” Sikes said, with Robin Penna of Harbor Keeper quoting an aquarium employee as saying the Walk Bridge project “would be economically devastating not only to South Norwalk but also to Connecticut for the loss of its revenues.”
The Third Taxing District and the Second Taxing District are very concerned about the businesses that will be affected by the Walk Bridge project, and the plan to bury a transmission line under the Norwalk River has “environmental impacts that don’t appear to have been fully studied,” TTD Commissioner Deb Goldstein said.
There is nothing to prevent ConnDOT from having an overhead transmission line over the bridge, as it does now, if the line is not attached to the bridge, Goldstein said.
Kunkel said he and D’Andrea can’t figure out where Eversource will put the machinery necessary to burrow under the river.
“We can turn this around if we tell our friends about the issues, sign the petition, send letters, make phone calls to the Mayor, the state representatives,” Krupp said. “This is such an illogical project on the merits. No reason that we need this bridge, maybe we can restore the existing bridge, keep it shut.”
One plan is to try to get gubernatorial candidates on the record saying that they will reexamine the plans, and Harbor Keeper will continue to press the lawsuit, Krupp said, asking for support because, “We can win this but we’re not going to win it unless a lot of people decide they want to help.”
Rilling in March said, “First of all, the state of Connecticut is virtually underwater when it comes to money, so I would rather think that ConnDOT would select the cheapest and most efficient way of doing this in order to save money. Since they have opined that a fixed bridge will cost as much or more than doing the lift bridge, and it would not reduce the time of the project by any significant (period).”
A lift bridge costs only 11 percent more than a fixed bridge, Redeker said last month, asking, “Is it really worth shutting off all future maritime uses whatever they may be… for a 11 percent differential?”
Building a new fixed bridge would require a temporary bridge next to the current bridge, which would lengthen the construction period and the environmental impact of the project, Project Manager Christian Brown of HNTB Corporation said in December 2016.
“I would have to say that when you hire experts to do a good job, you listen to the experts,” Rilling said in March. “I don’t think it’s a good idea if you close off the river, and I will tell you why. Because it will silt over, it will start to fill in. Who’s going to pay for the dredging? We would have to pay for the dredging.”
D’Andrea said Friday that Norwalk would not have to pay for dredging.
“Number two, we are precluding virtually any major or future development up in that area, where the boating community might want to boat,” Rilling said in March. “So, I think it’s a horrible, horrible thing. I know people, since this has happened, I have never met more engineers in my life.”