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Stamford’s shaky pedestrian bridge shuts during flood threats

January 25, 2019

STAMFORD — When it rains hard, crossing is barred.

That’s the rule now at a busy but crumbling foot bridge downtown.

The center pier supporting the 131-year-old West Main Street bridge is so rickety that city officials shut it down during rainstorms.

Thursday it was closed for the sixth time in three months, Public Safety Director Ted Jankowski said. Most closures last a day or less.

“It’s more of a preventive measure,” Jankowski said. “It’s to be on the side of caution.”

City Engineer Lou Casolo said he recommended the 125-foot bridge that connects the West Side to downtown over the Mill River be closed during heavy rains. It’s because the stone and concrete center pier is disintegrating.

“When there’s a lot of water and the rivers are running full, it creates a lot of force on the bridge piers and abutments,” Casolo said. “My concern is that the center pier could be compromised if a log or some other debris comes down the river and hits it.”

And whatever happens to the center pier happens to the trusses — the structural frames of the bridge.

“With this bridge, both of the trusses are bearing down on the center pier. If the pier failed, the trusses would fail, too,” Casolo said. “So I want to do everything we can to make sure nobody is on the bridge during weather events. I’m being very cautious about things.”

The historic iron bridge has been open to pedestrians only since 2002, when the state Department of Transportation deemed it unsafe for car traffic.

In the ensuing years, city officials debated whether to shore up the bridge just for walkers or undertake the bigger job of rebuilding it for vehicle use. The result of the debate was inaction.

Finally, last year, the Mill River Collaborative, a public-private partnership overseeing the renovation of Mill River Park, which surrounds the bridge, offered city officials a $2 million grant it received from the state to restore it for pedestrian use only.

The collaborative said a walk bridge is in keeping with the character of the park and will preserve the rare bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has survived as one of the few vestiges of city history left downtown.

In September, the Board of Representatives approved a contract in which the contractor was given 100 days to evaluate the bridge and estimate the cost of repairing it to preserve its historic character, and accommodate pedestrians and light emergency vehicles.

If the board approves the estimate, the contractor, Wengell, McDonnell & Costello, will complete the design. The construction work then will go out to bid. The work is scheduled to be finished in 2020.

The contractor has concluded its findings, Casolo said, and he hopes to present them to city boards next month.

Fixing the 1888 bridge, which carries utility services — including delicate, century-old telephone lines — will be complex, Casolo said.

“We may have to dam the river to repair utility lines and provide access during construction work,” he said. “We will present the possibility of installing a temporary bridge, if the boards support spending the money to do that.”

In the meantime, the bridge’s age is working against it — and possibly saving it.

The 1888 structure of intricate metal work — one of only eight of its kind left in Connecticut — was renovated a few decades after it was installed to accommodate trolley tracks. Adding tracks required adding support piers, Casolo said.

“When the trolley came through, they put eight mini-piers in the river, four on each side of the center pier,” Casolo said. “That structure wouldn’t be in the condition it’s in if those mini-piers weren’t there. They are the main support for the deck of the bridge. They are keeping the bridge up.”

Can mini-piers withstand the force of a river rushing with rainfall, and maybe tree limbs and other debris, until repairs are completed?

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” Casolo said.

And keep the closures in place, he said.

“We’ve got chain-link fences on each side of the bridge, and some signage, to keep the community aware of what the procedure is when there’s a lot of rain,” Casolo said. “The closures are done through the operations department, which knows the storm forecasts. They go out and lock the gates. After the storm subsides, I or someone from my office checks the structure, and if things seem to be the same, we open it again.”

The procedure will remain until the elected boards decide whether to direct the contractor to construct a temporary bridge or leave the antique one in place for the duration of the repair project.

“I’m sorry for the disruption to the public,” Casolo said. “But, given the possible consequences, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

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

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