Bridging Saugatuck: A Middle Road

Vague, preliminary plans for reconstruction (renovation? demolition and rebuilding? something else?) of the Bridge Street Bridge are producing plenty of froth (save it! sorta do something with it! no, we need a new bridge!). on all sides of the issue.

Someone with no skin in the game — but plenty of expertise — is a former Westporter who spent an entire career in the transportation industry. The other day, this person sent a thoughtful email to “06880.” As we gear up for public meetings and plenty of debate in the months ahead, this view is worth hearing:

I am truly undecided on what direction this project should take. I see the pros and cons of each solution. I don’t know which I favor.

This small committee that wants to designate the corridor as a Scenic Highway is doing so to tie the hands of the “experts” and limit the options available in their bag of tricks.

Of course, the “experts” are transportation experts, not Saugatuck experts, and they have very little sensitivity to the issues of Saugatuck. That’s what a public hearing should be about: a place where the transportation experts can learn about Saugatuck, and vice versa. The problem is that each side is staking out its territory early, and trying to dictate the outcome in their favor.

The historic and controversial Bridge Street (William F. Cribari) Bridge. Whatever happens to it -- or does not -- the effects will ripple through Saugatuck, and adjacent roads like Bridge Street. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The historic and controversial Bridge Street (William F. Cribari) Bridge. Whatever happens to it — or does not — the effects will ripple through Saugatuck, and adjacent roads like Bridge Street. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Consider the Merritt Parkway. We gave it historic designation, and limited the options of what can be done to it. Frankly, I think the Merritt Parkway can be the key to unchoking the highways in Fairfield County. Our forefathers set aside this land for us to do just that. We could make a glorious “cars only” parkway that could move people. But by giving it a special designation we’ve taken that option off the table. The only options left to move cars in Fairfield County are probably unaffordable, if not impossible.

So some transportation experts take the attitude that “you people have limited our options to move cars. Choke on them then!”

I say, leave all options open. Let a good airing of the issues lead us to a good solution. I hope the transportation experts will listen to the Saugatuck experts, and try to take their wishes into account.

I think that was done in the last big rehab project. They deserve some credit for bending over backwards to accommodate local issues. They might be able to do that once again.

34 responses to “Bridging Saugatuck: A Middle Road

  1. Good points have been made by this commentator but in order to have that desired “good airing of the issues” we need to first start with a key simple fact: The bridge is safe. Please see the enclosed Official Response from DOT Wendy Crowther and I received yesterday regarding the matter of the Saugatuck Swing Bridge and its safety as determined by the DOT’s Department of Bridge Safety.

    The key take away is that the bridge is considered by DOT to be in “Fair” condition and is not “structurally deficient” as has been previously reported.

    I hope that this helps alleviate the concerns some have expressed here on this blog about the bridges safety.

    Best, John F. Suggs
    RTM District 5

  2. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    The funny thing about Historic Preservation, the year we came to Westport in 1952 we rented a big red house for a year that was right next to the river and the bridge. It was a beautiful house. That was torn down long before there was a “Teardown of the day” and replaced by a development or condos. So much for historic preservation.

  3. Gee, an anonymous poster, who no longer lives in Westport, but is an expert who pays no real estate taxes in Westport, has some ideas on how those of us who do live here should proceed to protect Westport from the predations of the DOT. Sounds familiar. Many people with no skin in the game try to tell those of us you do have skin in the game, how we should act.

  4. Diane Parrish

    The Westporter with experience in transportation raises thoughtful and responsible considerations that take a long-range view of what’s best for the entire community. As a resident of the Saugatuck area, I hope they are given serious consideration. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to undo historic designations–even if the end result turns out to inconvenient or unsafe. (e.g. the Merritt Parkway and the small house at the the corner of Rte 33 and the Post Road.) This bridge serves many drivers and pedestrians and its official designation has a greater impact on many more people than the designation of an old house. Historic designation for one of the few Saugatuck river crossings in Westport should not be given for merely sentimental reasons. We could follow the example of other communities and post simple signage to highlight the route’s significance to the past, but improve it to serve those who use I it in the present.

    • The anonymous expert does not live in Westport.
      The bridge is important for more than sentimental reasons. It serves to moderate traffic through Saugatuck.
      Westport, especially the Saugatuck area, paid a big price when 95 was built. Enough is enough.

      • A little harsh, I think. Also, a little overdramatic to talk about the “big price” Westport paid for i95. Talk to Tom at Compo Barber Shop and ask what the Post Road was like before i95 opened: choked with truck traffic and clouds of diesel exhaust, so much so that Brooks had trouble attracting tenants to the shopping center. Just because something’s new, and it involves auto transportation, doesn’t mean it’s automatically evil

    • Diane, a minor point: the house that you cite at the corner of Route 33 and the Post Road is not, in fact, landmarked. As for following the example of “other communities” that traded their heritage for signage are they, by any chance, located in Westchester County?

  5. don l bergmann

    I think (i) designating the Merritt Pkwy as historic was the right decision, (ii) efforts to try to shape early the dialogue on issues such as the Bridge St. bridge are usually helpful and,often elicit important corrective information, e.g. the state of the bridge as “fair”, and (iii) the CT DOT has historically focused almost solely on improving traffic flows, e.g. widening and more roads, rather than factoring in quality of life issues and the importance of the historic.
    Don Bergmann

  6. Mary Schmerker, Staples 1958

    I considered not responding again. True I no longer live in Westport. However, I am a native, born, brought up educated in Westport. I return to visit relatives and friends who live in the area as often as I can so I am familiar with the traffic problems.
    Perhaps more importantly I lived through the construction of then named Connecticut Turnpike, now I95. So much was lost. I remember one grand old home very close to Bridge Street and South Compo that was moved, to North Compo, near Barron’s, if my memory serves me correctly. I remember the tears that were shed over others and beautiful spaces that were lost. I95 paved the way for growth making it even easier to access New York City and Westport.
    Traffic quieting or moderating through the residential neighborhoods is a valid concern and must be respected. I lived through and worked with City officials on a similar issue where we now live. The needs, desires and well being of those who live and work in Saugatuck need to be heard and respected. And then…..there is the historical value of the bridge…….

  7. “I think that was done in the last big rehab project. They deserve some credit for bending over backwards to accommodate local issues. They might be able to do that once again.”

    Two years of intense community pressure was what bent them over backwards.

  8. Dear anonymous low-information non-resident,

    Thank you for your undoubtedly well intentioned advice. But we’ve got this. You see, as residents, we know from experience that hope isn’t a winning strategy and preservation does not just happen.

  9. Luisa Francoeur

    When the existing bridge was being renovated, the temporary bridge was right next to it. There was space for both bridges. I really liked the temporary bridge for its ease of use, its safe feeing due to the width and the nice view from its arched shape. Would it not be possible to retain the existing bridge for pedestrians and bicycles and have a new bridge, too? The traffic is constrained by virtue of having to pass through Saugatuck itself and that would not change with a new bridge.

    Since the Merritt Parkway was mentioned earlier, I will add that the key to “choked” highways is to take the trucks off the roads and put their freight on the rails instead.

  10. David Feliciano

    How about a nice tunnel, you know like the “big dig” in Boston? It would drive-ability, safer, less pollution, no waiting for boat traffic, no lead based paint to scrape off. How about a calling it a day on that charming funky, dangerous, accident causing, time wasting, gasoline wasting, late train making, eyesore, temper flaring life endangering excuse of a bridge. We can even hang “Holiday Lights on the inside of the tunnel!

  11. I just went over the bridge today and there wasn’t room for my car and the car coming the other way. I have also hit my husband’s truck mirror on previous rides over the bridge. You can see paint scrapes when you’re waiting in traffic on both ends of the bridge. Is the bridge so beautiful? Does it have a certain architectural school that we’re trying to preserve? I’m not sure I get it. I had forgotten that temporary bridge which everyone seemed to love.. but now I remember it and I loved it too! Can’t we do something super special with a new bridge? Has anyone ever seen the Frog Bridge in Willimantic?….. Named after a really weird even in its history where thousands of frogs killed each other but it’s still cool. So many famous people lived here.. Washington slept here, Lincoln Slept here, Paul Revere was here, Martin Luther King was here, JFK was here, . there was a button manufacturer in Saugatuck and a Tannery there too..We can commission some really cool art. Mark Yirkew has done all sorts of cool things in three dimensions including bridge ideas. Why not ask him? We could make it an Artist Colony Bridge!! Awesome, awesome things have happened on the that River including Captain William Kidd sailing through it.. wait.. what about a tribute to the Indians who named it Saugatuck? And we can put lights on it at Christmas!! ……or all year long!!!

    • Mary, your knowledge about the history of our community in general and Coleytown in particular is tremendously valuable. It’s pretty clear to me that you’ve accumulated it out of a love for our community and all who made it what it is today. In this instance, I hope you won’t mind if I gently suggest that you may have possibly conflated visual beauty with historic merit. The intellectual argument that underpins preservation does not generally concern itself with notions of beauty. Instead, it is driven by the idea that to understand the history and development of our community – and, by extension, our nation – it is important to conserve the record of its built environment. I hope that helps you understand a little bit more about the thinking that caused the bridge at issue to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior in 1987.

      • Morley, it is sad but it’s functionally obsolete. Maybe we can cut it up and make sustainable furniture out of it like we did the trees in Longshore?

        • I’m being a wiseass, Morley. You are the one who should be commended about your passion to preserve. It’s upsetting that more isn’t being preserved. I just don’t know if the bridge really serves its purpose any longer. Could we perhaps leave it there or lower it about 6-8 feet and turn it into a walking bridge with little kiosks for tourists there? And put the real bridge next to it or over it? I’m thinking out loud here.

          • Your comment about sustainable furniture really made me laugh, Mary. Thanks for humor!

            With respect to idea that the bridge is not serving its purpose anymore, I might be inclined to note that the bridge actually is performing a vital function – one that the father and son team who designed it would never have contemplated in a million years. To wit: it acts as an effective traffic calming device. This is partially why, I think, so many who are concerned about the future of Saugatuck support the bridge’s continued presence.

            • I never thought of that, Morley. But aren’t there serious backups like there used to be? I don’t venture that way during rush hour myself to know. Or did I just answer my own question?

              • There is absolutely commuter congestion in that area, Mary, but, as Dan points out in his column on Westport News today, the two lane bridge is really just an extension of a two lane road. The congestion issue is a combination of the Riverside/Bridge Street intersection and the fact that the sheer volume of traffic exceeds the current designed carrying capacity of the roads in question – a problem that we see all over town. A wider bridge in this instance is akin, I think, to expanding a small, center section of a garden hose: you don’t change the outcome. Just the optics. Which explains why DOT has always wanted to create a four lane highway from the intersection of Bridge and South Compo to Riverside – or Saugatuck. Locally, such a scheme would, of course, be a complete disaster for quality of life but DOT is not in that business, it’s in the business of moving internal combustion machines.

                As I said at the beginning of all this, we all tore our hair out some years ago about whether or not to save this bridge. It was a huge deal. And we, as a community, came down firmly on the side of conservation. To drive home that point we even made sure the bridge got listed on the National Register of Historic Places – a move, by the way, that was not objected to by the DOT. The bottom line here is that there are other considerations on the table besides the ability to drive fast and maybe, in recognition of those, we need to think about dancing with the girl we brought.

                • Ok. I wonder if there’s a way to cut the steel (or whatever it is) on the sides and have it bow out a bit so we can fit our car mirrors with two cars across. That’s dancing with the girl we brought after she’s gained a little girth. She’s older now.. post menopausal… it happens.

                  • I hear you Mary! Don’t know about the modification possibilities but I do know the “first generation” modern bridges (like this one) were made of iron. Steel came later.

  12. Robbie Guimond

    As im not the best at communicating (not to mention writing )please bear with me.
    The bridge has a great ascetic feel and as a resident in this little slice of the pie I love / hate it. please let me explain.
    I own the small marina north of it and was appalled when the ” renovation” in the 80/90’s went arie . The height was lowered instead of raised to boat traffic. What a fumble by all party’s involved, the result was crippling to all water access property not only bushiness but private as well and lets face it that why a majority of people love it here, (water lifestyle ) , This bridge has choked the river to the point that its only a kayak /scull river and is slowly becoming filled in and I feel the most under utilized asset westport has.
    That said, I do not want it to go, we love looking out the window and seeing it every morning, it brings a particular old New England feel to our life here and when we ask of it to swing its a very cool sight to see, the snow in the winter and the summers boating under it (when possible) are just wonderful.

    My point , the d.o.t WILL want to do something so lets make sure it helps the locals not only on the roads but more importantly helps the river to breathe again as it seems we have forgotten about its importance to westport and the water lifestyle we all love .
    (sorry for the long and poorly compose post)

    Robbie Guimond

    • You don’t need to apologize for anything, Robbie. Your point was quite clear, plus you raised something that almost no one else has: the importance of the bridge to boaters and others who value this scenic marine setting. Thank you for raising it – I hope you’ll think about possibly attending the special DOT information session at Town Hall at 7:30 PM on Nov.23rd.