Metro-North ‘crisis’ slow to build — with no quick fix

The swing bridge shown in the open position over the Norwalk River

NEC Commission

The swing bridge shown in the open position over the Norwalk River

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy held a “crisis summit” Monday at Metro-North, but the surest time for preventing the latest service interruption on nation’s busiest commuter railroad most likely passed a decade ago during the waning days of the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland.

The newest source of Metro-North’s angst is one very old bridge: the 118-year-old Walk Bridge, a 564-feet long swing bridge across the Norwalk River that’s stalled in the open position twice in recent weeks. It is a monument to commuter frustration and deferred maintenance.

“The bridge didn’t turn 118 years old in the blink of an eye,” said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Nor can it be replaced in a blink.

Transportation infrastructure crises announce themselves quickly and loudly, but they arrive slowly and quietly. And the fixes, especially when they involve providing a new rail crossing without interrupting service to 140 daily trains, seldom are easy to finance, design or construct.

Preliminary design work is underway on a new Walk Bridge, estimated to cost at least $465 million, according to ConnDOT. The timetable guiding the DOT until recently called for 10 years: a final design ready in 2017, with construction to begin in 2018 and completion expected in 2024.

Under that timetable, to deliver a new bridge this year would have required a green light around this time a decade ago, when Rowland was facing a crisis of a different sort: an impeachment inquiry that forced his departure from office on July 1, 2004.

But Malloy said during a press conference after his summit in New York with senior officials of Metro-North and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that a new method of building the bridge off site and then lowering it into place could be much faster, once funding is obtained.

“Best-case scenario, this is a three-year project,” Malloy said.

Joseph J. Giulietti, the president of Metro-North, said when the bridge has failed to close completely, miter ends on four sets of tracks did not align. He said the fix was labor-intensive: a crew of 30 to 40 workers mechanically jacking the bridge into place.

Nursick said the state has invested $4 billion on Metro-North infrastructure during the administration of Malloy and his immediate predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The state is seeking $349 million in federal funds for a new Walk Bridge.

“Prior to Rell, nobody was spending money on mass transit, particularly the New Haven line. It became dilapidated over decades and decades,” Nursick said.

Projects started by Rell and continued by Malloy include a new maintenance facility in New Haven, the purchase of new rail cars and the replacement of a significant portion of the overhead catenary wires that power the rail cars.

“That investment continues. The problem is nothing took place for decades before that,” Nursick said.

But Rell, when confronted with budget issues as the state fell into recession in 2008, also delayed some spending. In 2008, the Walk Bridge was removed from the state’s capital budget, Malloy said.

“They dropped the project, because they didn’t know how to pay for it,” Malloy said.

Thomas F. Prendergast, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said the MTA and Metro-North were supporting Connecticut’s request for federal funds for the project.

“Every time this 118-year-old bridge fails to close properly, our customers suffer the consequences of decades of delay and neglect,” Prendergast said. “We are working closely with our partners in Connecticut to support their efforts to make temporary repairs to keep this bridge operating while they pursue federal funding to replace it with a modern bridge.”

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, one of three GOP candidates for governor, criticized Malloy for moving too slowly.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with Thomas Prendergast and Joseph Giuiletti.

MTA video stream

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with Thomas F. Prendergast of MTA.

“What would I do as Governor? I would have a state DOT team inspecting every inch of the Walk Bridge today,” McKinney said in a statement. “I would then direct the state DOT to fix the bridge. I would work with our federal delegation to assure that federal monies that become available later this year can be used for the emergency work that has been completed by our crews to address this issue now.”

The last major work on the bridge was begun in 1990, the last year of the administration of Gov. William A. O’Neill, and completed in 1992. Malloy said a small rehabilitation project also began in 2011, after he took office.

Malloy is trying to address decades of neglect, Doba said.

“The governor has shown time and time again he is willing to invest in infrastructure,” Doba said. “Sen. McKinney likes to point fingers, but he said nothing when Gov. Rell stopped planning for replacement of the bridge. What’s changed over the past six years? Now, he is running for governor.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for the Coast Guard on Monday to broaden the state DOT’s exemption from a marine rule that otherwise requires the agency to open the bridge on demand from marine traffic.

In 2013, the bridge jammed and caused delays 16 of the 271 times it was opened for marine traffic, he said.

The DOT already is exempt from the requirement during rush hour. The bridge on average opens just 20 times a month — once a day during week days — to accommodate barges serving businesses up river.

When the bridge jammed two weeks ago, it was open for a test, not marine traffic, Nursick said.

Blumenthal said the congressional delegation has called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to expedite the availability of $349 million in federal funds for work on the bridge.

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