Updated 2:15 p.m.: Additional information on bridge height. 11:14 a.m.: Added statement confirming bridge length, and photo. 9:30 a.m.: According to Mike Mushak, Jason Milligan incorrectly stated the replacement bridge’s height as 240 feet, which is actually the length.
NORWALK, Conn. – Gov. Ned Lamont promised Tuesday to “take another look at the Walk Bridge” and empathized with concerns expressed by critics of the massive bridge replacement project.
Lamont addressed the 130th annual Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce Dinner, at LaKota Oaks, and touched on the state economy and plans for the future. At the end of his speech, he took a question from real estate broker Jason Milligan, who asked if the “billion-dollar boondoggle bridge” is a “closed case.”
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
The Connecticut Department of Transportation is working to replace the aged railroad bridge over the Norwalk River. The bridge replacement itself is estimated to cost $511 million. A related project to create switching tracks in East Norwalk is estimated at $242 million and a Danbury Dockyard project is $89 million. ConnDOT also plans to replace other Norwalk railroad bridges for a total $1.2 billion “Walk Bridge Replacement Program” cost.
Lamont, on his 90th day in office, said he had talked with Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling about the bridge. The planned lift bridge, which opens to allow marine traffic to pass, is very expensive and would accommodate “the occasional sailboat,” he said.
“All of which are reasons to say, ‘This is crazy, this is the type of boondoggle that makes people really cynical about government,’” Lamont said.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao explained to him that the Norwalk River is a federally certified navigable waterway, and it would take up to five years for the U.S. Coast Guard to change that designation, he said.
“I haven’t made up my mind on that,” Lamont said. “It’s an important bridge to keep rail moving fast and upgrade our transportation system, but I share a lot of the same distress that you do, that this is not the way to run a railroad.”
Rilling did not reply to a Wednesday evening email asking him to respond to Lamont’s comments. He supported ConnDOT’s plans in a recently published opinion.
“It might be politically advantageous for me to jump on the bandwagon of the vocal minority and call for a stop to this plan,” Rilling wrote. “However, I have spent a lot of time learning about this project, its impact on Norwalk, and have concluded that a moveable bridge is the most effective and least disruptive option.”
Opponents of a lift bridge say that there isn’t enough marine traffic to warrant the massive lift bridge design put forth by ConnDOT and argue in favor of a fixed bridge.
Milligan on Wednesday incorrectly described the proposed lift bridge’s height as 240 feet or “approximately 24 stories,” in comparison to the 14 stories at 50 Washington St. and the 6-story-tall Maritime Aquarium IMAX Theater.
“’Harry’s Bridge’ will stand 18 stories above the Imax theater,” Milligan wrote. “It will dominate everything. Forget about the charm and character of the historical maritime village. The area name should change from SONO to ‘Harry’s Bridge’ or Bridge port.”
The official Walk Bridge Replacement Program’s web site contains a fact sheet which refers to the replacement bridge as a “240’ Vertical Lift Bridge.” In a Thursday morning comment, planning commissioner Mike Mushak wrote that 240 feet is the length of the span, not the height. NoN requested a clarification from ConnDOT, and at 10:48 a.m. Thursday received a statement from Nicolas Negron-Phillips of WSP.
“This figure in the 240’ Span Vertical Lift Bridge refers to the span, or width, of the bridge. The lift towers on the Walk Bridge Replacement are 150’ from track elevation. For comparison, this is nearly 85’ shorter than the nearby 234’ high Eversource power line towers,” Negron-Phillips wrote.
WSP is the Program Management Consultant for the Walk Bridge Program, according to the walkbridgect.com web site.
“The lift bridge’s towers are 150 feet above the level of the railroad tracks. This is nearly 100 feet shorter than the existing high towers, which are removed as part of the project,” the Walk Bridge website states.
Milligan is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by the City and its Redevelopment Agency which contends that his purchase of properties which were part of a Wall Street-area redevelopment project was illegal.
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) in 2016 said it was possible to change the river’s designation, but Rilling and the Common Council would have to ask for it to be done.
“If Norwalk decides that’s the right way to go, that would involve buying out all those businesses upstream of the bridge, I will go to work with the Army Corps of Engineers with the federal government, to take away that navigability,” Himes said, in 2016.
The river currently remains navigable for about one mile north of the bridge. One industrial user north of the bridge uses barges which need the current bridge to open, and supporters of the project have said that removing navigability north of the bridge would require compensating each property owner for the loss of value which would result.
“The latest focus on a navigable waterway designation, which is not as simple as some describe, is just the latest attempt to distract from the real issue we should be discussing: How can this project be completed quickly with the least amount of disruption? Which is: the current design,” Rilling wrote in the recent op-ed.
ConnDOT’s Walk Bridge plan is being challenged in federal court by Norwalk Harbor Keeper, a non-profit citizens group, on the basis that the State has not adequately established the need for a bridge that opens instead of a fixed bridge.
A movable bridge was required in the 1880s, when there was booming industrial traffic, but isn’t needed now, Harbor Keeper states.
“State DOT failed to ever study boat traffic north of Walk Bridge, instead erroneously relying on marine traffic statistics for the whole harbor,” Fred Krupp of Harbor Keeper said in a December statement. “It has ignored the numerous comments against the lift bridge plan from the Norwalk community.”
A lift bridge costs only 11 percent more than a fixed bridge, then-ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker said a year ago. “Is it really worth shutting off all future maritime uses whatever they may be… for a 11 percent differential?” he asked at the time.
ConnDOT is working to certify its plan as “90 percent design” in June, Department of Public Works DPW Principal Engineer Lisa Burns said in a Wednesday email. The “30 percent design” plans were submitted in March 2017 and the project reached the “60 percent” milestone in July.
Unaffiliated Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton has said she opposes ConnDOT’s planned bridge, which she often describes as the “Walk Bridge boondoggle.”
Changing the river’s status would lead to it silting in because federal dollars for dredging would become unavailable, Harbor Management Commission members said in 2016. More recently, the Commission has said it would be tough to get federal dollars under any circumstance, as dredging is based on need and the availability of funds.
“We do bring in barges. The shoaling that takes place is not conducive to the traffic in the river,” John Pinto said in late 2017.
“I believe a movable bridge and a federally designated navigable waterway is essential for our city,” Rilling wrote in the op-ed. “Having a fixed bridge, and thus removing that designation, would be shortsighted and restrict a prime area of Norwalk from future opportunities. The waterfront is a defining characteristic of Norwalk, which is desirable to residents, businesses, and tourists.”
‘Business guy’ governor promises leaner state government
Lamont called himself “the first business guy that’s had the opportunity to lead the state going back an awful long time,” and said he had put forth one of the first honestly balanced budgets “in an awful long time in this state.”
His much-publicized “debt diet” led to the “shortest” State Bond Commission meeting “in recorded history” Tuesday, he said. Connecticut will be investing in growth and economic opportunities but there will be 50-70 percent less bonding than has been done in recent years, he added.
“There’s an awful lot of ‘nice to haves’ out there and, Harry (Rilling), I love you man but we’ll do what we can for Norwalk, but the ‘nice to haves’ you’ll have to take care of yourself, man,” he said.
A third of the State government’s workforce is expected to retire over the next three or four years, he said. “We are just getting started and your state government is going to look very different over the next four and eight years, given that opportunity. A smaller, leaner state government delivering a much better customer service to folks that need it.”