Updated, 3:22 p.m.: PDFs and photo, added. 7:43 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Connecticut Department of Transportation officials gave the public an update on plans to rebuild the aged railroad bridge over the Norwalk River in two sessions Wednesday at ConnDOT’s Walk Bridge Welcome Center on Marshall Street. Members of the public expressed remorse over losing the old bridge’s iconic look, and skepticism regarding the cost.
Connecticut will bear 60 percent of the $1.2 billion program, which includes other Norwalk railroad projects, although Gov. Dannel Malloy said early on that the Federal Transit Authority would pay 66 percent of replacing the bridge itself. The news inspired John Flynn to question if the bridge would be completed on schedule, given the state’s financial condition.
ConnDOT Manager of Facilities and Transit James Fallon assured him that it would.
The presentation featured the first information on the long-awaited “60 percent design” phase, with an animation to show the sequencing of replacing the bridge – which will require two weekend closures of the railroad line, one in year two and the other in year four.
Unhappy Norwalkers were told in 2016 that their questions couldn’t be answered until the 60 percent design phase was reached; the estimated timing of that milestone was repeatedly moved back as ConnDOT wrestled with what officials described as perhaps the most complicated engineering feat ever in the world of building bridges. The 60 percent design has just been “buttoned up,” Fallon said Wednesday.
Questions such as those posed in 2016 did not a feature in the 4 p.m. presentation; ConnDOT is now in a legal battle with some of the people who were seeking answers, as Harbor Keeper, a 501c3, is challenging the choice of a lift bridge in federal court. The court is working its way through requests by both sides that it summarily rule in their favor.
ConnDOT Engineer Domenic LaRosa on Wednesday outlined a four-year schedule:
- Year One (12-14 months): You won’t see much activity “on top,” as ConnDOT installs temporary trestles and does in-water work, does utility work on North Water Street and assists the Maritime Aquarium in creating a new 4-D theater on its northern side to replace the existing IMAX Theater.
- Year Two (12-14 months): “This is when you’re going to start seeing things happening,” as ConnDOT removes the two tracks on the southern side of the bridge and the high towers are removed, and begins to build new piers.
- Year Three: This will be the “most dramatic change to the landscape,” as a southern lift span – 3 million tons of steel – is constructed off-site and floated in, and the existing swing span is removed.
- Year Four: The northern span will be floated in, when the existing span is about 90 percent demolished.
Concurrent to this Walk Bridge activity, the Fort Point Street, Osborne Avenue and East Avenue railroad bridges will be reconstructed, with the same two-track outages planned.
Leading the opposition to the new look was Katherine Snedaker, who said she’s lived in SoNo for 30 years and has a boat, so is therefore very familiar with the Walk Bridge – “something that’s very beautiful, that’s significant, and like in every photograph.”
“We are getting a bridge, while very functional, looks like something that would be in a storage container yard,” she said. “… I just wish with all the time and energy that has been put into bringing South Norwalk back and have it beautiful, we could have something that’s a little more attractive looking from that standpoint. It just looks like two refrigerator units on top, of what is a lovely bridge.”
A Design Advisory Committee (DAC) worked with ConnDOT to consider design options and balance function with aesthetics, “trying to make it less bulky, make it lighter, incorporation of the arch elements and things like that,” Fallon said.
“There is to some extent limitations on how far you can go and what you can do, things of that nature,” Fallon said.
The 100-year-old high towers are “not in very good shape,” he said, and workers will document them fully with photographs.
“It just seems like that’s a focal point. That’s not something that you want to take a selfie in front of,” Snedeaker said. A man stood and said that the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, N.H., was a beautiful iconic bridge that was replaced by something like what ConnDOT plans for Norwalk.
“The entire history of this bridge is being thrown away for functionality,” he said. “… I think you could fix it but nobody wants to do it.”
South Norwalkers are used to looking at a rusted structure but the new bridge is planned to be gunmetal gray, another said, asking if it could look like rust instead.
The bridge will have a “surface treatment we call metalizing,” Project Manager Christian Brown of HNTB Corporation said. He explained that the work currently underway on the Ann Street railroad bridge features “weathering steel,” which will be exposed to the elements and develop a patina, but the Walk Bridge is in a brackish environment where weathering steel doesn’t perform so well, meaning a protective covering is needed.
Paint “fails over time,” and the goal is a bridge with long-term reliability, he said. The bridge is expected to last 100 years.
The renderings show the bridge from an aerial perspective in an attempt to set it within the landscape, but residents probably won’t notice the boxy structures on top because they’ll be looking at it from a different angle, he said.
Deb Goldstein said she’d been on the Design Advisory Committee and Fallon hadn’t explained that ConnDOT had ruled out colorizing the metal due to cost.
You could paint it, but paint doesn’t last and repainting the bridge is a big job that would involve railroad track outages, a process that would have to be repeated every 20-25 years, Brown said, while the planned metalizing would be done during fabrication of the lift spans.
Goldstein also said Fallon didn’t mention discussions about lighting the bridge; Fallon replied that the 60 percent design had just been reached and the lighting will be revisited after the holidays.
“We have committed to some kind of lighting scheme and we need to think about what the scope of that is (with the Committee),” he said.
“The plan went from the federal government paying for most of it, to now the state paying for,” Flynn said.
In 2014, Malloy said that the federal government had awarded ConnDOT $161 million for infrastructure hardening purposes which, combined with existing state funds designated for the Walk Bridge replacement, gave Connecticut about $277 million to put toward the $465 million total estimated project cost.
The Walk Bridge construction itself is now estimated to cost $511 million. The federal government is covering 40 percent of the overall project cost of $1.2 billion, according to ConnDOT.
“How do you expect that you won’t start and not have enough money to finish?” Flynn asked. He predicted that 300 businesses would fail if the project took 10 years instead of six.
“There are funds in the project,” Fallon said. “We know our expenditures within the project and we will commit those funds either on a federal level or a state level, to match those expenditures. So, there is a plan, there is a program. It’s in the department’s capital plan.”
You can watch the Walk Bridge presentation on the Walk Bridge Project’s Facebook page, here.