NORWALK, Conn. – Gov. Dannel Malloy on Monday blamed decisions that were made before he was elected for the continued use of an ancient Norwalk railroad bridge that malfunctioned Friday.
Malloy said at a Monday press conference that a decision was made in 2008 to work on the bridge, “then dropped because they didn’t know how to pay for it.”
“We’re not dropping the project because we don’t know how to pay for it,” Malloy said. “… We’re taking a different approach.”
The inability of Metro-North crews to close the 118-year-old Walk Bridge after it opened to allow marine traffic to pass Friday sent thousands of Metro-North passengers out of their rail car seats and onto Norwalk streets, walking from one train station to another. It also put a strain on the Norwalk Police Department, Mayor Harry Rilling said. A plan will be devised to quickly transfer passengers to alternate transportation in the event of future bridge failures, a standard procedure approach so customers would know what to expect, said Metro-North Railroad President Joseph Giulietti, speaking at Malloy’s Monday press conference.
Metro-North is required to open the Walk Bridge for marine traffic when requested, but Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday called for restricted openings. Rilling said he supports that.
“Sen. Blumenthal and I had a discussion this morning regarding restricted bridge openings, especially just prior to critical rush hours,” Rilling said in an email. “I am in favor of restricted openings until such time as we can be certain the bridge will not malfunction. Obviously we know the bridge replacement is years away from reality, but it should be repaired once and for all to prevent the debacle of last Friday. The malfunction caused a tremendous inconvenience for our commuters and placed a significant strain on our police department as it became necessary to deploy resources away from other duties in order to facilitate the flow of traffic from East Norwalk to South Norwalk. By the time the officers could be placed in strategic locations, traffic had queued so significantly, it became difficult to get it cleared efficiently.
“We will be checking on the requirements of businesses north of the Walk Bridge to see what impact restricted openings would have on them,” Rilling said. “If there were a critical need, an emergency opening could and would be accommodated so as not to interrupt the continuity of the business operation.”
Malloy, Guilietti, Connecticut Transportation Commissioner James Redeker and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast met Monday to develop a multi-pronged approach with short- and long-term strategies for addressing infrastructure needs of the Walk Bridge, according to a press release.
“There is no doubt that we are now seeing the effects of decades of neglect when it comes to investing in our infrastructure,” Malloy said in the release. “In the short term, every procedure, protocol and engineering solution must get the immediate attention of the most qualified team of experts to ensure reliable service for Connecticut commuters. But the long-term aim is to find and fund a replacement, and I’m glad today to have the public support from the MTA on our application for federal funding.”
Opening and closing the bridge has become a labor-intensive operation, Giulietti said at the press conference. The miter rails on the edge of the bridge must now be lifted by hand, he said. It requires 30 people.
The bridge also failed at 4:30 a.m. May 29. Giulietti said crews began working on that opening of the bridge at 11:30 p.m. May 28. To close it, they used saws, and then torches, he said.
The bridge was designed for old steam technology, he said. It now has an electric motor, but it still has the same gears, he said. (An MTA video, embedded above, shows some of the bridge’s internal workings.)
Malloy said there hasn’t been any major work on the bridge since 1992. A rehabilitation inspection was done in 2005, according to Garg Engineering. That website also describes a $58 million rehabilitation program. Malloy spokesman David Bednarz said in an email, “The website link is not accurate. That was the project that was scrapped back in the 2008 time frame – it never took place.”
“This issue should have been tackled long ago,” Malloy said. “There should have been a plan in place when I took office. … Within a few months we devised a plan to strengthen the use of this bridge so that we could then proceed with replacement.”
Malloy said that when he became governor, $9 million was allocated for timber and railway replacements on the Walk Bridge, with the idea of keeping its functionality going as efforts are under way to replace it. That work will be done in December, he said.
“We are not trying to get 25 years out of this bridge,” he said.
Malloy announced in April that Connecticut had applied for $600 million in federal transportation funding to help cover the capital costs of three resiliency, or “hardening,” projects central to Connecticut’s commuter rail infrastructure along the New Haven Line. That included a request for $349 million to cover 75 percent of the cost of the Walk Bridge Replacement Project.
The bridge swings open to allow boats to pass through. Malloy said that, over time, that has proven not to be the best design.
The new bridge would be a “bascule,” or vertical lift, bridge that opens for marine traffic from one side with a counterweight system. Malloy said Monday that the new bridge would be built elsewhere and then be lifted into its place over the Norwalk River. “Best case scenario, this is a three-year project,” Malloy said.
Connecticut is applying for federal “resiliency” funds because there is a “grave danger” that the bridge would be damaged during a high-intensity storm, potentially knocking out service for an extended period, he said.
News on whether Connecticut gets the grant should come in September, he said.
The bridge opens five or six times a week, he said. There are 140 trains using the bridge every day, he said. Malloy said the main reason the bridge opens is to deliver building materials, but sailboats and “a charter boat” also require bridge openings. However, the charter boat, The Island Belle, departed Sunday and is not expected to return, having recently been given approval to sail out of Rye, N.Y.
Malloy said Connecticut needs to come up with $100 million for its share of the bridge’s replacement cost, and that proves his administration’s commitment to commuters.
“There is no doubt that we are now seeing the effects of decades of neglect when it comes to investing in our infrastructure,” Malloy said in the press release. “Over the last three and a half years, we have changed course. In fact, the five-year capital plan is 165 percent of the 2010 plan. The Walk Bridge is a great example of past priorities. In 2008, plans for a new bridge were dropped and no additional investment was made. Today, we are not only providing the funding to maintain it, we’re also developing a plan to replace it. While we clearly have much more work to do, I hope that residents know my administration is committed to making investments that were put off for far too long.”