Gov. Ned Lamont’s reconsideration of the $1.2 billion Walk Bridge replacement is welcome on several fronts. First, such a huge sum warrants review when facing a $2.5 billion state budget deficit with a reported 200 highway bridges/structures needing major attention amidst proposals for highway tolls required for needed maintenance. Second, our state has only two industrial harbors — New Haven and Bridgeport. New Haven has no lift rail bridge even though both cities have very substantial and lengthy upwater industrial waterfronts extending from their fixed rail bridges.
In contrast Norwalk’s shallow upstream river is mostly residential with only very light industrial use and considerable wetlands — neither very long nor a major candidate for future industrial use/development. This is largely unchanged for decades. Third, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, has offered to have the US Coast Guard change navigable status of the upriver stream as he did successfully for Bridgeport saving hundreds of millions dollars to avoid a high fixed bridge. Contrary to reports that five years would be required, it’s a simple procedure. Our USCG makes large numbers of changes in navigation status yearly on request of local bodies. Mayor Harry Rilling has not accepted Himes offer for a review.
So far the proponents of a movable $1.2 billion replacement haven’t passed the “costs-benefits” test. The potential economic benefits from greater access to the upstream river are marginal. But the costs from years of dislocation to our downtown and residential, business and city interests are staggering — easily in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Annually the aquarium brings in 500,000 visitors with tens of millions of support outlays with local merchants. Shutting down the east access to our downtown for several years would cause considerable losses to residents, business and the dity itself — and reduce the prospects for our new mall.
It’s puzzling that Mayor Rilling hasn’t addressed these obvious costs and hired consultants and published the projected costs to the city, its residents and businesses. Certainly they’re very substantial. And so far there’s no indication that there would be reimbursement from the state over beyond the costs of rebuilding the aquarium. In view of widespread opposition from city residents and businesses, the mayor’s reluctance to identity costs of such a project — the largest in the city’s modern history – raises many questions. No other decision by the mayor has generated such widespread opposition.
Fourth, Connecticut DOT’s claim that a very high lift bridge towering over every other Norwalk downtown building would actually be less costly than repairing or replacing the existing bridge with a fixed bridge seems highly questionable. I’m aware of no independent engineering consultancy has supported the DOT’s claim. Fixed rail bridges similar to our current one have served for hundreds of years across America and in Europe. Even a first year engineering student would be hard pressed to claim a several hundred foot high lift bridge would be superior to repair/replacement of a modest sized fixed bridge already in place.
Fifth, there has been no discussion so far of the huge costs of maintaining round-the-clock bridge tenders required to raise the proposed lift bridge. Such costs are in the many millions over a long period time combined with the not inconsiderable costs of maintenance and repair of such large structure. Over a century the bridge tender costs would be impressive.
Sixth, reportedly the current Walk Bridge in its closed position remains operable without any immediate requirement for replacement. Surely there’s enough time to consider a more plausible costs benefits approach. The current proposal, favored by Mayor Rilling, would be one of the nations’ largest rail bridge projects. For a state facing a $2.5 billion budget deficit and such an outlay on questionable needs seems ill considered. Why Mayor Rilling is supporting a huge costly project bringing no economic benefit, only huge costs, and one that has strong local and state opposition remains puzzling.
Clearly the next steps ought be hiring engineering consultants to identify the very large costs of the DOT desired project to Norwalk and its residents and businesses — as well as independent engineering consultants to assess the costs of repairing the fixed bridge and replacing it with a similar fixed structure.
Peter I Berman lives in Norwalk.
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