There was plenty of sound and fury last night, at the state Department of Transportation public meeting on the Bridge Street (aka William Cribari) bridge.
There were concerns about tractor-trailers crawling through Saugatuck. About the history behind the 130-year-old structure. About DOT itself.
There was also a calm, balanced presentation by a guy named Jim DeStefano.
He’s got a lot of skin in this game. He’s lived in Westport since 1981 — at the corner of Bridge Street and South Compo.
And he’s a structural engineer.
I followed up this afternoon. Jim had plenty more to say.
The current discussion is not a new one, he notes. Thirty years ago — in the 1980s — DOT studied a replacement for the span. Restoration was not on the table.
First selectman Bill Seiden commissioned a separate town report from New York engineers. They found it structurally deficient, beyond repair. Trucks were already prohibited from crossing it.
The DOT examined what DeStefano calls a “scary” option. A new high-clearance bridge would soar as high as the nearby I-95 one. That was what federal standards demanded, unless the new bridge could be movable like the old one.
“People freaked out,” DeStefano recalls. DOT rapidly realized there was significant local opposition — and high cost — so they studied a movable span instead.
There was no discussion of the historic nature of the Bridge Street bridge, he says. But Jim was interested in that aspect.
Westport’s Historic District Commission was not. They were involved in a fight to save the Longshore cabins. So DeStefano hired a historic district consultant — with his own money — and helped get the bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Marty Hauhuth was elected first selectman, she appointed herself, DeStefano and former first selectman Jackie Heneage to a commission. Their charge was to find a compromise with DOT.
Over a period of several years, the state department was “extremely cooperative,” DeStefano says. “They wanted to give the town what it wanted.”
But DOT was also honest. They thought the town was crazy to keep a narrow, rickety old bridge, when the town could have a new one.
DOT could not compromise on the width of the roadway, or the vertical clearance. They were bound by federal standards — and Westport’s bridge was out of compliance.
A solution was proposed. DOT would restore the bridge, then turn it over to the town. Route 136 would be re-routed, so that Bridge Street and South Compo would no longer be state roads.
Then came another political shift. New governor Lowell Weicker appointed a new DOT commissioner, who lived in Weston. He changed the wording — from “rehabilitation” to “repair.” That freed the bridge from complying with federal standards.
“Everyone recognized the rules were bent at the top of the food chain,” DeStefano says.
A brand new bridge structure was built on top of the existing one. Old trusses were put on top, as decorations. They serve no function or purpose.
The “repaired” bridge looked a lot like the previous one. But the “scary” metal plates had been replaced with a solid roadway.
And the 2 or more men needed to hand-operate the swing bridge — which gave it its historical relevance — were replaced by electric motors.
The 1993 version of the bridge looked and felt like the old one, DeStefano says. But it had “no historical integrity.”
That’s the bridge we have now. Over the last 23 years, though, it’s deteriorated. One of the original piers — damaged in the 1950s by a barge — is rusting away. The decorative trusses have been damaged in collisions (possibly by state plows).
DOT has recommended 2 options. One would restore the bridge in the same basic form. Trusses would be further apart; guardrails would be added, and the overhead clearance would be raised 6 inches to meet federal standards.
The 2nd option would be a brand-new bridge, with the look and feel of the old one. It would be raised higher so boats could pass underneath — with a swing mechanism not susceptible to flood damage, like the present one.
Last night, DeStefano called the DOT’s serious consideration of historic restoration admirable. However, he thinks the proposed replacement bridge has much to recommend it.
He says he realizes that many people who drive over the Cribari Bridge daily “hate it.”
And, DeStefano adds, “I feel a little bit guilty that my views on historic preservation all those years ago have caused a couple of decades of anxiety for drivers.”
He acknowledges the fears of many Westporters. But, he says, “I’m not convinced that tractor-trailers would overrun” the town. There are too many obstacles for truckers to drive through Saugatuck, he says.
“We have to be cognizant of what people want. A lot of speakers last night want to keep the bridge. But I suspect a lot of people who hate it were not there.”
The DOT is willing to spend a lot of money on the bridge, DeStefano says.
“Let’s be careful,” he concludes. “Let’s make sure we do what the town wants.”