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Federal judge rules against Norwalk Harbor Keeper’s Walk Bridge suit

The Walk Bridge, as seen Tuesday evening from Oyster Shell Park.

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – A federal judge on Tuesday ruled against Norwalk Harbor Keeper and Fred Krupp in their lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild the Walk Bridge.

Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that Krupp and Harbor Keeper, a federal nonprofit citizens group, had no “standing” in the suit, and issued a summary judgment in favor of ConnDOT and its co-defendants, including the Federal Transportation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Harbor Keeper, in a statement issued in response, promised to consider an appeal and urged Gov. Ned Lamont to reconsider the Walk Bridge.

“The court did not rule that the selection of a moveable bridge was the right decision. It did rule that the government did comply with the procedural requirements of the statutes,” Harbor Keeper wrote.

Courts do not rule whether a regulatory decision is the best one possible or even whether it is better than the alternatives, according to Stefan’s decision. “Rather, a court evaluates ‘whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment.’”

At issue is the railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, built in 1896. ConnDOT has been working to replace the bridge and simultaneously renovate all the railroad bridges in Norwalk. The project includes related work to expand the Danbury Dockyard and install a series of switching tracks north of the bridge.

ConnDOT is moving forward with a vertical lift bridge design, which will rise 60 feet over the waterway, the same height as the Yankee Doodle Bridge on Interstate 95, north of the Walk Bridge. It is planned to feature two towers that will be 150 feet above the level of the railroad tracks, nearly 100 feet shorter than the existing high towers.

The plaintiffs argued that the State has not adequately established the need for a bridge that opens instead of a fixed bridge, which they said could be much cheaper.  They contended that the State’s Environmental Assessment, a regulatory requirement, did not assess the fixed bridge’s potential resiliency, reliability and safety benefits, nor attempt to balance the railroad needs to the waterborne transportation needs. It did not assess potential impacts on marine traffic and navigation, and the actual needs of transport in the one mile of river north of the bridge, according to the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs alleged that ConnDOT did not consider a fixed bridge at the same level as the current bridge, claiming that it would have less environmental impacts and be less expensive. They contended that a fixed bridge would have less impact on their recreational and aesthetic enjoyment of the area.

The fact is that construction on a fixed bridge “would render the river unusable for an even longer period, between 52 and 64 months, as opposed to the estimated 40 months for the movable bridge that was selected, and dredging would still occur,” Stefan wrote.

“In addition, there will be fewer complete channel outages during construction of the movable bridge option, during which Plaintiffs’ use of the river will be completely blocked, than there would be if the fixed bridge alternative had been selected,” Stefan continued. “Finally, the only sources of potentially toxic chemicals in the project is the existing bridge structure, which likely contains lead-based paint and PCBs and sediment that will need to be dredged regardless of which bridge alternative is built.”

That’s why plaintiffs do not “have standing,” but, “even if they did, I hold that the Norwalk River Bridge Project decision-making process was not arbitrary,” he wrote.

Stefan then touched on the issue that has some Norwalkers up in arms: the requirement that the Norwalk River retain its federal designation as “navigable.”

ConnDOT and FTA have demonstrated a rational basis for factoring in the navigability component, as “early communications with federal and state agencies led Defendants to believe that those agencies would have refused to approve a bridge design that did not comport with current navigational clearance,” Stefan wrote, explaining that ConnDOT told the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that there is a declining number of maritime users who need the Walk Bridge to open, but the agencies “indicated that they sought to maintain current navigational capacity.”

“USCG repeatedly informed CTDOT that USCG would not approve a bridge that did not maintain current vertical navigational clearance of 60 feet,” the Yankee Doodle Bridge height, Stefan wrote, explaining that Coast Guard approval is needed under the General Bridge Authority Act of 1946.

ConnDOT considered relevant factors and made an informed decision in rejecting the low-level fixed bridge, therefore meeting federal legal requirements, Stegan ruled.

Harbor Keeper released a statement, explaining that it had challenged the “government’s defective environmental review for the Walk Bridge Replacement Project, including its unjustified failure to examine a fixed bridge alternative” but a federal judge had ruled against its claims.

“{W}e urge Governor Ned Lamont to take a fresh look at alternatives that would be less damaging to the Norwalk Harbor environment, the residents and business in South and East Norwalk, and less costly to the taxpayers of Connecticut,” Harbor Keeper said. “When Governor Lamont was recently asked to address the Walk Bridge Project in Norwalk, he promised a fresh look.”

Lamont in April promised to take another look at the Walk Bridge design. Lamont was put on the spot by real estate broker Jason Milligan during a Q&A at the 30th annual Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce Dinner, and said that the bridge is the type of crazy boondoggle that “makes people really cynical about government.”

“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,” he said.

Harbor Keeper wrote:

“He referred to the fact that the only reason to have a much more expensive bridge was to open for an occasional sailboat. Moreover, an openable bridge on the main northeast corridor can get stuck open. No wonder Amtrak objected to the current plan. More than a thousand people have joined the Norwalk Harbor Keeper in calling for a new look at alternatives.

“We renew our request for Governor Lamont to review the current plan and determine what is best for the railroad, the waterway, the city of Norwalk, and the State of Connecticut. We ask that the Governor be open with the public about the dollars that could be saved by an existing-height fixed bridge plan. Equally important would be knowing the real potential to lower disruption for the environment and community by pursuing alternative designs. Governor Lamont will be faced with countless tough decisions during his tenure. The Walk Bridge doesn’t have to be one.”

 

Lamont’s office did not respond to a Tuesday evening email asking for a response to the Harbor Keeper statement.

Mayor Harry Rilling recently told NancyOnNorwalk that ConnDOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti had said the State is moving forward with the lift bridge. Rilling on Tuesday reaffirmed that account and said he’s heard nothing from the governor recently about the Walk Bridge.

“I know that the court ruled in favor of the Department of Transportation. And I would anticipate that unless there’s any appeals, things will continue, as they are,” Rilling said. “The thing that I am encouraged, I guess, by, is that a lot of the work for the Walk Bridge Project is being done right now, and has had minimal effect on the City of Norwalk as far as navigation and so forth.”

Work is underway on the Ann Street and Marshall Street bridges and on the Danbury Dockyard, as well as on the movable switches. The bridge will be built on a barge just north of Manresa Island and floated into place, Rilling said.

“So the governor has not made any further inquiries of me or anybody that I know of. Commissioner Giulietti has come to Norwalk and toured the site, and I have no reason to think that things will not move forward. But I also am encouraged by the fact that the Department of Transportation did a complete replacement of the bridge over I-95 in Stamford near exit nine. And they did so with minimal disruption, the planning was there. I’m encouraged by that.”

Harbor Keeper v ConnDOT ruling 19-0709

19 comments

Lisa Brinton July 10, 2019 at 6:51 am

Thanks for trying Fred Krup & Harbor Keeper! While not proving ecological standing, this $1B ugly, raised bridge replacement for ~ 75 boats a year, (w/accompanying Danbury train yard) will impact the economy and quality of life in SoNo and E Norwalk for nearly a decade. It’s a shame that neither the mayor nor common council stood up for Norwalk, effectively rolling over for the DOT.

Mike Mushak July 10, 2019 at 7:37 am

Good news.

Let’s get the job done and prepare Norwalk for the 21st century and future generations.

The completely dumbed-down and reactionary idea of a fixed bridge, as some including mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton and her supporters are pushing, would be the biggest urban planning mistake and environmental decision the city could ever make, and insure the ecological and economic death of the Norwalk River right through the core of our great historic city that was founded almost 400 years ago as a thriving seaport on a navigable waterway right up to Wall Street.

This historic access on a federally-protected navigable waterway needs to be preserved for future generations, including protecting industrial uses with barges that keep thousands of heavy trucks off our city streets and highways every year, and potential water taxis connecting Wall Street with SoNo and a potential nature center and marina at Manresa Island someday.

Not to mention the effect a fixed bridge would have on the huge devaluation of tens of millions of dollars of commercial and residential waterfront property values along the current open and navigable river, a huge tax burden that would have to be compensated by every single taxpayer in Norwalk in every corner of the city from Rowayton up to Cranbury. No thanks!

Also, we should never give up our moral obligation to protect the environment, and allow the silting up of over a mile of the current open and navigable river north of the bridge and it’s subsequent degradation into a smelly and mosquito-infested mudflat choked with toxic muck from upstream runoff and covered in invasive phragmites reeds, prone to hypoxic episodes every spring, summer, and fall that kills every living thing trying to pass through it from lack of oxygen from decaying algae blooms, including the restored migrating fish populations we are encouraging with dam removals upstream all the way to Ridgefield.

Of course, these facts won’t stop the reactionary Lisa Brinton camp, who post incessantly on this site, from continuing to push misinformation with the stupid idea of a fixed bridge and politicizing in the most petty and sophomoric way a nationally-important transportation upgrade from 19th century technology, which insures hundreds of billions of economic activity every year on the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to DC.

Let the petty attacks begin.

Piet Marks July 10, 2019 at 9:46 am

Thank you Mike for your well reasoned and fact based statement. Also water front in and by itself is a valuable resource tax wise and otherwise. Commercial use may not last forever and who knows, future high end water front residential and or recreational use may make this even more accessible waterway more valuable. Progress is the Future.

Piberman July 10, 2019 at 10:04 am

Savvy folks know environmental restrictions preclude serious development of Norwalk’s upper harbor. City leaders have steadfastly rejected.a Downtown City Marina encouraging visitors to our shabby Downtown. As they have a Maritime College. We’re the only harbor City in CT with that distinction. So much for Norwalk as a “harbor City” That’s just fanciful language.

A movable Walk Bridge on a costs benefits basis has no costs benefits advantage. That’s basic freshman economics. The Bridge brings only huge costs to the City w/o any visible advantage. In a State with a decade long stagnant economy – only one in the nation – spending huge sums on an uneeded Bridge will just bring more ridicule to CT’s government.

Given widespread City opposition its puzzling why Mayor Rilling and City Hall Democrats support the Boondoggle. Maybe they believe tall towers will somehow advance Norwalks modest standing as the County’s most transient City historically unable to secure a major business downtown. Ultimately in Norwalk we get the governance our citizens demand. And even when they object they still come up short.

Jason Milligan July 10, 2019 at 10:16 am

Mushak,

You use enough buzz words and bring up enough emotional issues to sound plausible, but as usual you are dead wrong. Your logic is asinine.

You falsely link a fixed bridge to dire consequences like the river becoming a mud flat.

Mud flats would be a potential consequence if dredging every decade or so were to cease. Never has anyone argued to cease dredging!!!

In fact, dredging could be funded for a thousand years with the savings of canceling the billion dollar boondoggle bridge.

Bryan Meek July 10, 2019 at 10:22 am

Spending $1bn on 200 year old technology when future generations will be buzzing about in driverless cars makes sense only if your bread is being buttered by this boondoggle.

Al Bore July 10, 2019 at 10:48 am

@Jason, I agree with you his comments are asinine. This bridge is not good for Norwalk and it is one more thing we will have to look at and wounder why for many years to come.

Mike Mushak July 10, 2019 at 11:13 am

Jason, I normally don’t engage you publicly as you well know, but your comment above begs for a response.

What the public needs to know clearly and without any drama, is that with a fixed bridge and the abandonment of the federal channel as Lisa Brinton and her biggest supporter Jason Milligan are pushing, any future dredging that Jason just proposed would have to be paid for by Norwalk taxpayers instead of the federal or state governments.

The politicization of Norwalk’s future is unfortunate, but as much as this crowd of reactionary “chicken littles” loves to make noise to get attention especially on this site, and are always demanding accountability, it’s time they be held accountable for their irresponsible positions including deliberately pushing misinformation to the public.

Let’s not forget it was only a couple months ago this crowd including Lisa Brinton mixed up the published length and height of the bridge, basically doubling the height to instill fear that our “skyline will be destroyed”, ignoring the fact that the proposed movable bridge will be nearly 100 feet shorter than the current electrical towers that are a prominent feature on our skyline now.

Imagine our city being run by this crowd who think facts don’t matter, like the current Republicans running our country who think climate change and forced pregnancy are big jokes and trillion dollar deficits leading to the drastic cutting of social services as the rich get richer is somehow good for America. No thanks!

You may not agree with everything Harry Rilling does, as no mayor can please everyone and solve every problem, but Mayor Rilling is a strong leader and Norwalk native who loves our city to its core, and an honest straight shooter who has pulled a trifecta of increasing services, lowering taxes, and improving city management, and so all his small group of loud critics have left is pushing bad ideas for the Walk Bridge and doing everything they can to obstruct progress on Wall Street.

Time to ignore the noise and move on and make Norwalk the best city it can be, including electing Harry Rilling for another term, and getting this obsolete 19th-century bridge replaced with a modern and safe movable train bridge that preserves our upper river and entire east coast transportation system for future generations.

Ken July 10, 2019 at 2:04 pm

Piberman
What are you rambling about?
No one ever suggested a downtown marina. You are the first to mention that off the wall idea. Also what is your random rambling about a maritime college? Also the new bridge does not have widespread opposition. It is only the few same old same old that post on this site that that have issues with everything.
Piberman I noticed that you had to toss in a dig about the Democrats. What I find odd is the constant assault of Democrats by you considering that you are a long time registered Democrat.. PLEASE EXPLAIN.

Ken July 10, 2019 at 2:10 pm

Bryan
So are you saying that we should not make transportation improvements on the pipe dream that in 100 years everyone will have a driverless car? If so please resign from the BOE as someone with that mindset has no place dealing with the education of our children

Andrew July 10, 2019 at 2:55 pm

“an honest straight shooter who has pulled “a trifecta of increasing services, lowering taxes, and improving city management”

This stuff is brilliant thanks for the laugh again.

Bryan Meek July 10, 2019 at 4:52 pm

It took 20 years for “horseless buggies” to replace horse drawn carts, and only that long mainly due to generational acceptance. The Tesla models can basically drive themselves now, but listen to Ken….we’re 100 years away so we should fritter away $1bn on a bridge that could be fixed for a fraction of the cost. We should probably also wait another 100 years to do things like finishing the 7/15 connection.

Let’s put Ken on the BOE so he can make sure our children stay grounded in the latest 19th century technology.

Or use common sense, fix the bridge at a fraction of the cost of this payday for the connected and at the same time use the money on many other needed projects, including smart highways to manage driverless vehicles.

CT Yankee July 10, 2019 at 10:06 pm

Idiots do vex us!

Dig up the 1896 plans and repeat that construction *exactly* except substituting 21st century advanced materials and methods.

DUH!

Ken July 10, 2019 at 11:33 pm

Bryan
You do realize that we will never have self driving cars mainstream.
Well at least now I see why the BOE is the disaster that it is. THE BOE seems to be making policy buy using The Jetsons cartoon as a research manual.
Also if you were actually following the walk bridge and not believing the fake news spread by your boss Lisa yo would realize that the cost of repair is higher than replacement

Bryan Meek July 11, 2019 at 8:50 am

Ken, you have the BOE confused for departments that can’t clean out storm drains or figure out how to get people other than out of towners into the beach. Repair estimates were under $200mn and driverless cars are already here by the way, but keep digging yourself a hole. Which one of the out of town out of state donors to the incumbent are you on the list? What is your cut of this boondoggle project? Care to be transparent, or just a keyboard warrior?

Debora Goldstein July 11, 2019 at 1:36 pm

First, it would be interesting to see if CDOT produced any written evidence of those “early communications” with the Coast Guard and other agencies. When challenged on the height issue at a Design Advisory Committee meeting, the committee was told that all of these communications had been verbal. Which begs the question of how much data was analyzed by either agency before they weighed in.

Second, I would appreciate Mr. Mushak prioritizing which of the “worst urban planning decisions” he actually considers the worst out of the few he’s deemed as such in the last year. I thought not underground a quarter mile of electrical feeds in East Norwalk held that crown.

Also, would he kindly provide the sources for his assertion about thousands of trucks being kept off the local roadways and the tens of millions of dollars of devaluation for the waterfront properties. It is unclear whether navigability under the bridge is a legitimate element on which to challenge an assessment. Admittedly, the barge-based traffic may get more expensive for the industrial uses in the upper harbor if they have to use smaller barges, but it is hard to see how the property valuation changes if they can still operate their business there. The biggest impact may be to the sailboat users, but here again, it’s hard to see how that impacts the property value, as opposed to the cost of doing business. A quick and dirty view of the tax bill for one of the biggest industrial owners in the upper harbor shows an assessed value of about $4.5mm across 12 listed parcels. Even if the value went to zero for every property there, it does not seem likely that there is tens of millions in lost assessment value in the aggregate.

Lastly, there is another good reason to rehabilitate this bridge to extend its life span, rather than replace it to ensure another 100 years of use. And that’s the federal plan to run a new high speed rail corridor through here that will NOT be using the tracks that go over the Walk Bridge. https://www.fra.dot.gov/necfuture/ Amtrak is investing heavily in this future concept. https://media.amtrak.com/2016/08/amtrak-invests-2-4-billion-for-next-gen-high-speed-trainsets-infrastructure-upgrades/ https://nec.amtrak.com/nec-vision/

Bryan Meek July 11, 2019 at 3:01 pm

@Deb. Devine would add 15,000 trucks a year to the highway if they came from Bridgeport. Thats 50 trucks a day on a road that handles over 100,000 a day. This is what we need to spend a billion for….that and 70 boats that need the bridge opened every year.

Jason Milligan July 11, 2019 at 4:18 pm

70 boat trips not 70 boats. That could be the same boat going out and in or in and out a total of 35 times. Or 5 boats taking 7 round trips each.

Clearly finances and economics are deliberately being ignored for the boondoggle.

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