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Walk or drive: Fresh fuel for old bridge dispute in central Stamford

July 31, 2018

STAMFORD - The West Main Street bridge has been too decrepit to drive on for 16 years.

Yet the dispute rages over whether it should remain walkers-only.

City officials debated it for two and a half hours last week. Residents can have their say at a Board of Representatives meeting next week.

The little metal bridge, only 125 feet long, was built in 1888 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It crosses Mill River at a narrow point, just where colonists built its wooden predecessor in the 1600s.

The story of the bridge is old but its importance to the city center is evergreen.

At issue now is its role connecting downtown to the West Side. Between the two neighborhoods - the first thriving and the second working to do so - is Mill River Park, a greenway with a carousel, fountain, skating rink and features still to be built in a $60 million renovation.

As the park gets new life, the bridge, which the state Department of Transportation designated for repair two decades ago, is falling into the river. City officials fear it soon will be unsafe even for pedestrians.

So they were happy when the Mill River Collaborative, a nonprofit group working with the city to remake the park, offered to spend a $2 million state grant to fix the bridge.

Mayor David Martin and members of his administration went before the Board of Representatives’ Operations Committee last week asking for approval of an agreement city engineers reached with a contractor to repair the bridge for that amount.

It seemed like a no-brainer. The collaborative, recognizing the importance of the bridge to the park, would provide the money, and the contractor, Wengell, McDonnell & Costello, has worked with city engineers for years to shore up the structure’s iron trusses and stone-and-cement piers. WMC also agreed to fast-track the project, since there’s a chance the structure will not survive the next hurricane.

But the old bridge tiff, vehicle vs. pedestrian, emerged.

The collaborative, city engineers and Martin’s office have decided the bridge should remain limited to pedestrians, and are moving fast, leaving residents behind, Rep. Elise Coleman, D-3, said during the committee meeting last Thursday.

“Residents are in the dark,” Coleman said. “The bridge wasn’t supposed to be just pedestrian. That was promised to them.”

The promises go back to 2002, when the DOT closed the bridge to cars because of safety concerns. A few years later, work on Mill River Park began, and the collaborative highlighted the importance of a walk-only bridge, in keeping with its goal to create a natural oasis.

West Side residents and business owners working to revitalize their neighborhood balked, saying closing the bridge to cars put them “in a no-man’s zone.” It was like the park was a buffer between downtown and the West Side, and they were being “ostracized,” they said.

The result of the dispute was inaction. As the bridge crumbled, some began to think the controversy had quelled.

“There was testimony and there were hearings” before the Board of Representatives passed a resolution designating the bridge for walkers only in 2008, Martin’s chief of staff, Michael Pollard, reminded the committee last week.

“The conclusion was that it had not caused significant traffic problems and residents grew accustomed to it. It was not a main artery for vehicular traffic, only a shortcut to downtown, and a pedestrian-only bridge was a positive for the West Side,” Pollard said.

Martin acknowledged the “longstanding disagreement.”

“There are people in the community who would still like to see a vehicular bridge,” the mayor said. “But leaders of an important West Side group approached me recently and said they’d had a change of heart after 16 years.”

Closing the bridge to cars has not increased traffic on other arteries linking the West Side to downtown, Martin said, and his public-safety director determined it has not disrupted the routes of ambulances and other emergency vehicles headed to Stamford Hospital up the hill.

Still, “there will never be a consensus,” Martin said. “If we try to achieve one, we will have no bridge to repair. It will be gone” in the next storm that swells Mill River and washes away the rickety bridge supports.

Despite the efforts of the mayor and his staff, some representatives had reservations about approving WMC’s contract to fix the bridge for pedestrians only.

“Bridges and roadways knit a city together,” said Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, D-2. “Whenever you have an opportunity to do something about (them,) you should think about it a hundred times.”

In a city that is growing like Stamford, infrastructure “provides economic and civic benefits,” de la Cruz said. “We are going to need every piece of roadway for the growth that is to come.”

Coleman said there should be a public hearing before representatives vote on whether to approve the contract.

“I think people should know exactly what you’re doing,” she told the committee.

But members voted 4-1, with three abstentions, to recommend that the full board approve the bridge-repair contract at its next meeting. Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, D-12, the committee chairman, said residents may speak during the public-comment portion of the board meeting.

It is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 6, in legislative chambers on the fourth floor of the Stamford Government Center, 888 Washington Blvd.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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