The faltering rail bridge in Norwalk poses a political and transportation crisis for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose only immediate salvation is winning an intense, multi-state competition for federal transit funds that could expedite the bridge’s long-delayed replacement.
Connecticut is now competing with a dozen states and even Metro-North’s parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for a share of a $3 billion Federal Transit Administration fund created by Congress in the 2012 Hurricane Sandy relief bill. To replace the bridge, the state is seeking $349 million, more than 10 percent of the entire fund.
If the application fails, there is no other ready funding source for a project estimated to cost $465 million in state and federal funding.
By making replacement of an 118-year-old bridge a second-term funding priority, Malloy took a gamble won by other governors, but not him. Twice in recent weeks, the mechanical swing bridge opened for marine traffic and failed to close, interrupting Metro-North and Amtrak service for hours at a time.
Closely following other Metro-North service interruptions, the malfunctioning bridge in Norwalk has elevated the issue of deferred infrastructure maintenance — a quiet crisis plaguing the length of the Boston-Washington rail corridor — into an urgent election-year issue in Connecticut.
“This is embarrassing, that a rail bridge could get stuck open. Talk about a symbol of the decline of Connecticut. The damn bridge doesn’t work? And it isn’t just once, it happens repeatedly. It’s like a cartoon. Unacceptable,” said Joseph McGee, a vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “And that’s what elections are about: How leadership responds to a crisis.”
Politically and financially, a bill ducked by a long line of Connecticut governors is coming due on Malloy’s watch. And the Norwalk bridge is only one of four movable bridges on the New Haven line, all more than 109 years old and in need of major rehabilitation or replacement.
“As you know, and I don’t mean to beat this thing too often, this was not in anybody’s plan until I became governor,” Malloy said recently, referring to money budgeted to design a new Walk bridge. “And in point of fact, there need to be about four other major improvements in that corridor as well.”
But the money to which Malloy refers in ConnDOT’s five-year capital budget is modest: In fiscal year 2017, there is $8 million in state funds to cover a portion of design and planning, not construction, for four bridges. Plan A for the Walk bridge is to win the federal competition.
“Plan B is to hope Plan A works,” said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for ConnDOT.
Can Sandy save a neglected bridge?
The Federal Transit Administration says it’s received 64 applications totaling more than $6 billion for what’s become know as Sandy resiliency money. New York state alone has applied for $4.9 billion. About $2.9 billion was for Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects.
ConnDOT also has asked the FTA for another $254 million for other railroad projects.
On Monday, the state’s congressional delegation asked the FTA’s acting director, Therese McMillan, for an expedited review of Connecticut’s application. In letter, they said, “Connecticut commuters and the entire economy of the Northeast region remain at risk.”
But other lawmakers are lobbying for their home state projects as well. For instance, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has lobbied for his state projects, including New York City’s $267 million proposal for four new boats for the Staten Island Ferry fleet.
Lobbying is expected to continue during the summer, as the FTA considers applications. Project selections will be announced later this year.
The $3 billion program was announced at the end of December. To qualify for funding, a project must “protect critical transit infrastructure from being damaged or destroyed by future natural disasters.”
The FTA’s goal was to spare taxpayers from having to pay to restore the same transit services a second or third time. In the case of the Walk bridge, the state is seeking funds for a bridge that has withstood storms since the administration of President Grover Cleveland.
Besides the areas hardest hit by Sandy — New York, New Jersey and New York City – Connecticut must compete with Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
The administration of Malloy’s predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, included funding for the Walk bridge in the DOT’s long-term capital budget, but it was deleted in 2008, as the state fell into a recession-driven financial crisis.
Nursick said “there was no administration support” to prioritize the bridge because there was no money for the project. To fund it would have meant taking money away from another project.
“It came down to ‘if you fund it, something else has got to give,” Nursick said.
In an earlier program to help Sandy-hit states, the FTA awarded roughly $5.7 billion to help transit systems in Sandy-affected states. Nearly all of that money went to projects in New York and New Jersey.
“The bottom line is if we don’t receive federal dollars for this project through the Sandy resiliency funding,” Nursick said, “there will be very finite and limited opportunities for other federal program dollars.”
From crises comes infrastructure funding
It took the collapse of a bridge carrying I-95 across the Mianus River in Greenwich in 1983 to get Gov. William A. O’Neill to create a $5.5 billion transportation infrastructure fund.
It was the inability of aging Metro-North cars to run through a snow storm helped Rell resolve to buy new rail cars and fund construction of a new maintenance yard in New Haven.
“This is the equivalent of the snowstorm that happened 10 years ago which led to a focus on rail investments,” McGee said.
Rell and Malloy each stepped up transportation investments, but a study by the Regional Plan Association in January concluded that the current rate of investment on the New Haven Line by Connecticut and New York was insufficient.
“At the current pace of investment of less than $200 million a year, it will take 20 more years to rebuild the New Haven Line’s aging structures and systems to achieve a state of good repair,” the report said.
The group estimated a funding gap of $3.6 billion beyond what is budgeted for long-term improvements, primarily in Connecticut. That includes $2.8 billion to replace four movable bridges in Connecticut and one in New York.
The Walk bridge, one of only two remaining swing bridges in the entire Northeast rail corridor, would be replaced with a bascule bridge, essentially a draw bridge that hinges on one side and is raised with the assistance of counterweights.
The Cos Cob Bridge over the Mianus River, the Saugatuck River Bridge, and the Devon Bridge over the Housatonic are the other movable bridges on the New Haven line. Two were built in 1904, one in 1905.
“In a perfect world,” Malloy said, “we would be able to do all these things simultaneously or approximately the same time.”