The slow walk of the Walk Bridge replacement

Imagine having to replace the George Washington Bridge, in-place, while still handling thousands of cars and trucks each day. The railroad equivalent of that is still underway in South Norwalk, replacing what’s known as the Walk Bridge, a vital rail link in the Northeast Corridor for Metro-North, Amtrak and the occasional freight train.

We all remember the woes of this 125-year-old swing bridge that sometimes refuses to close, stranding thousands of riders. The 2017 plan to replace it includes $161 million in federal Sandy relief money. But the total cost has ballooned from $600 million to over $1 billion (thanks to added rail yards and such) and again seems to be climbing… and the old bridge is still there.

Some skeptics in Norwalk opposed the plan because of the cost, others because they would lose their land by eminent domain. And everyone’s concerned about the years of construction and mess… including demolition of the Maritime Aquarium IMAX Theater.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation had considered all sorts of new bridge designs… truss, lift, bascule, counter-weight and even an elevated fly-over. But one design seemed conspicuously missing that might have be cheaper… a non-movable, “fixed” bridge.

Why not just “close the river” and replace the old bridge with a cheaper bridge that doesn’t have to swing or lift open because it’s permanently closed? That option was not even discussed in the voluminous Environmental Assessment Report. Why not?

Blame the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers. They want to keep the mighty Norwalk River, all two miles of it, open and navigable. But do they really have that much power? Isn’t it possible to force those federal agencies to, in effect, close the river to boat and barge traffic by edict or a bill put through Congress?

Couldn’t the few companies still on the river… a concrete company, an idle asphalt plant and a small marina… be bought-out with money saved by building a cheaper fixed bridge that doesn’t raise or lower? The answer is yes, but it wasn’t considered, and here’s why.

The Walk Bridge in 2014. (File photo)

Six years ago I cornered then-ConnDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker and asked him.  (Spoiler alert: critics of the bridge plan won’t like his answers.) The Commissioner said that ConnDOT did ask the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers about a fixed bridge that would close the river and were told “no way”… though critics say such concessions have precedents elsewhere in the country.

I even asked a member of our congressional delegation about introducing a bill to “close” the river. He said he could do that, but nobody official has requested that.

More important, then-Commissioner Redeker said whether fixed bridge or movable, construction would still disrupt the neighbors just as much and for just as long. And, said Redeker, the cost savings for going to a smaller, simpler fixed bridge would only be 10 – 12%. Really? Hard to believe.

The Walk Bridge project is worth watching because it may act as a template for other “billion-dollar bridge” replacements farther east in the years to come. Everyone just wishes, five years after it started, they’d get on with replacing that old bridge and keeping trains running.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called “Talking Transportation” for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at [email protected]

This column comes to you courtesy of the Connecticut Mirror.

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David Osler November 15, 2022 at 11:17 am

Well I do understand the Coast guard’s position sometimes even agree with it even in this case it’s mostly because nobody’s offered an alternative location for those businesses to be relocated to personally I think that the financial offer to put the concrete plant and marinas and if we were really smart about it metal recycling and maybe building another roadway through the industrial zone and north of village Creek to accommodate that would make it very easy to relocate several of the industrial components of the town the marinas on the Norwalk River and it’s more than one it’s like three as well as concrete and potentially asphalt manufacturing since I don’t know how often that plant is used and that would be a long-term fix for multiple problems in town and probably save about $200 million dollars and the environmentally beneficial as well by simply allowing greater access to barges and less navigation on recreational vessels through a channel I also don’t understand why they don’t do two tracks of the time design like they did in Riverside so they can tear out half the bridge and then tear out the other half of the bridge when the need to replace comes up

Fred Wilms November 15, 2022 at 11:28 am

One missing piece in this conversation – what about the Metro North and Amtrak passengers? This rail line is a vital link for the entire Northeast Corridor. Their interests in a fixed bridge that would never breakdown and hence never disrupt rail traffic, take a back seat to a lift bridge for a few barges and sail boats on the Norwalk River?

Adam blank November 15, 2022 at 6:57 pm

I would love to have seen the state put in a fixed bridge and use the savings to clean up manreesa and move the upriver businesses to a portion of manreesa and then do something nice with the remainder.

Johnny cardamone November 16, 2022 at 10:09 am

OK I noticed that none of this was discussed by the Democrats during this election that I heard of😩 The bridge should be welded shut and painted! DONE!👍🏼💪🏼 define Brothers can be bought out by O&G concrete and the asphalt can also go to Stamford. Or find a plant in Bridgeport. Manresa should be preserved as should part of that old well four-point site at the bridge as a native American museum and historical wildlife refuge

Johnny cardamone November 16, 2022 at 10:14 am

Keep in mind you could buy 1000 houses under eminent domain and pay $1 million each and that would be $1 billion🥵🦔

Johnny cardamone November 16, 2022 at 10:16 am

Also remember nothing man builds his permanent if you change your mind 100 years from now you could build another new bridge.🥵🦔 Save the taxpayers money👍🏼🌎

Johnny cardamone November 16, 2022 at 10:42 am

OK one last comment! to accomplish new and bold things requires two elements: Vision and Will👍🏼💪🏼 And then follows the money 😂The Devine brothers property could become the new norwalk train station and the infrastructure is already there even for housing in garage train cars👍🏼 The tracks are already on the west side of the river therefore not needing a Bridgecrossing and they can proceed onto sono or directly to New York City and this could be a tremendous boost to the whole Wall Street development which the city is about to spend $12 million on reconfiguring roads and sidewalks🦔🇺🇸

Lisa Brinton November 16, 2022 at 3:19 pm

@John Levin – with all due respect to Adam, this recommendation was made years ago. Norwalk leadership did NOTHING to advocate on behalf of our city – save the late Bill Collins, who knew this was a boondoggle from the get go. Sad thing is, 95% of Norwalk residents don’t even know this monstrosity is coming. We get the government we deserve.

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