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2007, 08-09

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The Newtown Bee

Environmental Issues Delay New Housatonic River Bridge

STEVENSON The planned construction of a new Route 34 bridge across the Lake Zoar section of the Housatonic River has been delayed until the state Department of Transportation (DOT) can assure the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that adequate environmental safeguards would be in effect during the construction of the new bridge.

The DOT has long planned to construct a new bridge across the river just upstream of the existing Route 34 bridge, which sits atop the hydroelectric Stevenson Dam.

The bridge atop the dam was built in 1919. The 1,250-foot-long concrete dam, which is 124 feet tall, creates the 11-mile-long impoundment upriver of the dam known as Lake Zoar, which is heavily used for recreation.

In light of the existing bridge's deficiencies, the span was closed to traffic for two weeks in August 2005 to allow major bridge repairs to be made. The bridge links Monroe to Oxford.

At that time, it was thought that new bridge construction would start in the spring of 2007. But the DEP's concerns about the environmental aspects of that construction have delayed the start of work.

If the DEP's review of additional information to be provided by the DOT moves quickly, bridge construction might start in the spring of 2009, according to DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. If work started in the spring of 2009, the project would be complete by the end of 2011.

The existing bridge atop the hydroelectric dam is owned by Northeast Generation Company, the firm that generates electricity at the adjacent power plant.

The DOT rates the existing bridge's overall quality as "poor," Mr Nursick said. The bridge, however, is considered "safe" for use by motorists, he stressed.

The bridge's deck is considered to be "fair" condition. Both its superstructure and its substructure are in "poor" condition, he said.

The two-lane span is considered to be both "functionally obsolete" and "structurally deficient," he said.

The bridge, however, remains safe to use, he stressed, adding that, "An unsafe bridge is a closed bridge." The bridge is inspected annually, he said.

Environmental Issues

The DOT formerly had an environmental protection application for its planned new bridge pending before the DEP, but withdrew that application after the DEP found problems with the construction plans.

The new bridge is budgeted at $43.6 million, plus related costs.

The new bridge would be constructed about 250 feet upriver of the existing bridge. The Housatonic River at Lake Zoar would remain at its current level during the bridge construction project. The new bridge will be designed to last 80 years.

The DOT plans to submit a new environmental protection application to the DEP in the fall, Mr Nursick said. That application would address in more detail issues including the "constructability" of the planned bridge, as well as how the DOT would prevent the PCB-laden sediments behind Stevenson Dam from spreading downriver during the construction process.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are toxic, odorless, colorless chemical compounds that lie in Housatonic River sediments. In the past, PCBs were dumped into the river at a General Electric factory in Pittsfield, Mass, and have traveled downstream.

The DOT's new application to the DEP will provide more information on the construction methods to be used during new bridge construction, Mr Nursick said. It would include information about the use of construction barges and cranes.

A DEP public hearing on the bridge construction project might come as soon as June 2008.

The planned bridge would carry two lanes of traffic across the river. The bridge atop Stevenson Dam would remain in use until the new bridge is constructed.

DEP spokesman Dennis Schain said the DEP understands the need to provide a sound public infrastructure in the form of a new bridge across the river, while keeping in the mind the environmental protection aspects of such a project.

Besides the need to monitor the presence of PCBs in the river during bridge construction, the Stevenson Dam area is wintertime habitat for bald eagles, he noted. Eagles from the north travel to the area to hunt for fish in the open water downriver of the dam.

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