How to Fix or Replace an Aging Bridge Over the Housatonic?
Pearsall, Susan. New York Times [New York, N.Y] 29 Mar 1998: 2.
IN the early 1900's, traveling Route 34 between the small towns of Monroe and Oxford meant crossing the Housatonic River west of Derby on a single-lane, wooden suspension bridge. By 1919, when the Connecticut Light and Power Company finished building the Stevenson Dam across the river, topped with a long, two-lane, concrete arch bridge, the landscape changed dramatically.
Suddenly, Monroe and Oxford became lakefront communities. The 1,063-acre reservoir was named Lake Zoar, after the hamlet that was flooded, said John Babina Jr., a Monroe historian. Although the new bridge was much wider and longer than its predecessor, it was designed as ''a horse and buggy bridge,'' according to Bruno Ranniello, corporate spokesman for Northeast Utilities, C.L.P.'s parent company.
Now 79 years old, the unusual bridge, deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, is deteriorating. (The dam is still structurally sound.) No one disputes bridge inspection reports detailing heavy rusting of steel beams, open cracks and hollow spots in the concrete cantilevers, failing expansion joints and other problems. But area residents disagree vehemently with officials of the power company and the state's Department of Transportation about how to fix it.
The power company supports the transportation department's proposal -- construction of a $37.3 million multi-span bridge with gentle, curving approaches 246 feet upstream of the dam. The new bridge would be 55 feet wide, up from 24 feet, allowing for two travel lanes, 10-foot shoulders and a pedestrian walkway.
At a March 12 public hearing in Monroe attended by more than 300 people, there was strong disapproval for the plan, chosen from among eight alternatives under study since 1995.
''Only the government would propose such a grandiose solution to such a modest problem,'' said Ed Kisluk, the chairman of the Lake Housatonic Authority.
Most residents favor replacing the existing bridge with a 42-foot-wide structure on the dam, which would allow for roadside shoulders but no walkway, and making minor improvements to the approaches, as suggested by Richard J. Kopf of Oxford. He is the chairman of the Concerned Citizens for Preservation of the Housatonic River Basin, a group formed in 1995.
Mr. Kopf, who lives below the dam and enjoys swimming and kayaking there, contends reconstruction of the existing bridge would be less expensive and more environmentally responsible than disturbing lake sediment known to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB's.
But Brian Cunningham, the project manger for the state's Transportation Department, has indicated it may not be possible to provide a wider bridge on the dam without relocating the intake structure, which would also disrupt the lake bottom.
Although the power company paid for the original $4 million project, the state plans to pay for the new one, much to the dismay of taxpayers, who contend the power company is still financially responsible for the crossing it created. Mr. Cunningham has said a 1963 law gave his department responsibility for reconstructing roadways and bridges crossing man-made waters.
''Our position is we sell electricity; we don't build bridges,'' said Mr. Ranniello. ''This agreement that we entered into 70-some years ago served its purpose. It is no longer a viable route given today's traffic situations. It's just dangerous.''
Mr. Ranniello said the electric company's support for a new bridge off the dam has nothing to do with proposed deregulation laws that would force his company to sell its five hydroelectric plants on the Housatonic River. ''We also have the option of buying back our own facilities under the deregulation laws,'' he said. ''Our intent right now is to do that.''
Over the years, Lake Zoar has become a popular spot for swimming, fishing and boating; on a busy weekend, lake authorities say, traffic exceeds 200 boats per day. The water below the dam, called Lake Housatonic because it is impounded by a dam in Derby, is used by homeowners along the riverfront and boaters who launch from Indian Wells State Park in Shelton. In recent years, the area just below the dam has become a winter stopover for bald eagles, who feed on fish in the open waters.
The visitors are apparently not deterred by relatively poor water quality. The state's Department of Environmental Protection has given Lake Zoar a grade of D, which means it is not safe to drink the water or eat most fish caught there. Lake Housatonic waters received a C grade; goals call for improving both areas to meet Federal water quality standards.
Bridge traffic has been increasing since 1935, when Route 34 became part of the state's trunk line highway system, Mr. Ranniello said, and is expected to increase from 350 to 450 vehicles per hour by the year 2015.
At the hearing, residents and environmentalists contested the results of a Federal environmental assessment that said the state's proposal would have no significant impact on the area.
Representatives from the Housatonic Valley Association in Cornwall Bridge, the country's oldest nonprofit watershed conservation organization, and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment in New Haven, criticized state officials for making only three shallow test borings where bridge piers would be placed, and testing for just one variety of PCB, when previous testing has indicated other types are present.
Both groups called for a Federal environmental impact statement, a more thorough assessment, to determine the risk of PCB contamination associated with construction.
''We object in the strongest terms to Connecticut D.O.T.'s 'play now/pay later' approach to its PCB risk analysis and the thoughtless placement of a big bridge on a small road as if no repercussions would result,'' said Karyl Lee Hall, staff attorney of the Connecticut Fund in a written statement. ''A finding of no significant impact for this project is thoroughly inappropriate.''
Others challenged state figures that showed a higher-than-normal accident rate on a 3.4 mile stretch of Route 34 that includes the bridge and its approaches. From 1989 through 1994, there were 128 accidents, including 21 on the dam and 16 on the approaches, according to state reports. None of the accidents resulted in serious injuries or fatalities.
John Marrin of Stevenson said traffic volume, estimated at 7,400 vehicles per day in 1988, should be factored in. Conservatively, he said, that means more than 2.1 million vehicles a year. ''Why might the accident rate be so low?'' he asked.
Among the 41 people who offered public comment at the hearing, only two spoke in favor of the state's proposal: Paul Esposito, a civil engineer for Northeast Utilities in Berlin, and Edward Lundblad, who lives on Lake Zoar in Newtown.
In an interview, Mr. Lundblad said he crosses the dam each day on his way to work the midnight shift at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford. Several years ago, on a snowy day, an oncoming car missed a curve and slid across the road, smashing his truck on the driver's side. He said he has seen many accidents on both sides of the dam.
''I see the road in its worst conditions,'' Mr. Lundblad said, arguing that the state's plan would make driving safer.
At the hearing, many residents worried that a bigger bridge would soon destroy the scenic, rural character of the area, perhaps leading to future road widening projects, more tractor-trailer traffic, and accidents at higher rates of speed. State highway studies anticipate the percentage of truck traffic would remain about 7 percent of total volume if a new bridge is built.
''I love to cross the bridge,'' said Bill Duesing of Oxford, an organic farmer. ''I like slowing down and stopping at both ends.''
''This is a quality-of-life issue for a lot of us,'' said Peter Tuite, a 22-year resident of Monroe, who reserves Sundays for fishing on Lake Zoar with his three sons. To him, fishing is like going to church. ''It's where I get my spirit renewed,'' he said. ''If someone built a bridge through your church, I think you'd be upset.''
Written comments on the plan will be accepted until April 17 and it could take up to six months to prepare an analysis of the comments received, Mr. Cunningham said.
''We're initiating a process right now where we're re-evaluating the scope of the project,'' he said.