Not Water Under The Bridge: Looking Back At The Last Repair

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 controversial Bridge Street Bridge. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The controversial Bridge Street Bridge. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

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.

The Bridge Street Bridge is over 130 years old. That's a lot of history.

The Bridge Street Bridge is over 130 years old. That’s a lot of history.

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 temporary span (left) was built in the early 1990s, while the Cribari Bridge was being worked on.

A temporary span (left) was built in the early 1990s, while the Cribari Bridge was being worked on.

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.

Hand-cranking the Bridge Street bridge.

Hand-cranking the Bridge Street bridge.

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.

The controversy over the future of the Bridge Street Bridge will likely continue for years. (Photo/Michael Champagne)

The controversy over the future of the Bridge Street Bridge will likely continue for years. (Photo/Michael Champagne)

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.”

22 responses to “Not Water Under The Bridge: Looking Back At The Last Repair

  1. Given that the current bridge is just a replica of the old bridge, it has no historical value in and of itself. Therefore, it only makes sense to make something that will last at least another 130 years. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make this new bridge something unique to Westport– something people 150 years from now will also want to preserve. Any unqiue bridge designers among us?

  2. Lynda Abshire

    I’d vote for a replacement bridge, a pretty one.  The old Saugatuck bridge is NOT a pretty bridge.  The Oakland Bay Bridge is a pretty bridge.  I’d like to know the bridge is safe for all of us who use it daily.

  3. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    A cable-stayed bridge?

  4. Jeff Seaver

    I’m so grateful for this fascinating historical perspective. As a denizen of Saugatuck I cross this odd and amusing bridge multiple times daily, and it’s almost always an adventure. The roadway appears as the exact width of two vehicles. Each crossing survived un-smashed-into is a mini-story in itself. But entertainment value aside, sooner or later we’re all going to have to face fixing Cribari. Westport public discourse can be dominated by loud, demanding voices — everyone from entitled newcomers with no interest in what preceded their grand arrival, to the knowing disdain held by deeply entrenched historical interests. The practicalities of this renovation, however, are going to be amazingly complex. Resolving this issue is going to require thoughtfulness, patience and a willingness to become informed, and I’m so pleased that Jim DeStefano has offered to be a valued resource for us all.

  5. Morley Boyd

    Mr. Stefano,

    As you may know, when it comes to active bridges, the criteria for what makes a bridge historic is very different than, say, a house. And by the way, your house is one of my favorites. You have created a work of art that is such a pleasure to view.

    As it happens, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Engineers (AASHTO) produced an authoritative assessment and decision making guide in 2007 entitled “Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement”. On page 8, you will find a discussion of “What makes a bridge historic”. From there you may wish to progress to page 11, the section labeled “Members/Components that generally are not vital to retain”. There you will find a list of things such as substructure, stringers, floor beams, decks, and so on.

    The bridge at issue, now the nation’s oldest active pin connected swing truss bridge (which can still be operated by hand if need be according to the very friendly DOT bridge opening crew I spoke with recently), remains on the National Register of Historic Places. If it had lost its historic integrity, it would have simply been de-listed.

    What is important to understand here is that active historic spans usually have some type of intervention such as what has been done with ours. This is done for safety and its why the beautiful 19th century covered wooden bridge at Cornwall is still in use. Most people do not know this but hidden beneath its wooden skin is a modern steel deck. No one in Cornwall, for far as I know, is making a fuss about their bridge failing an authenticity test. When you walk across that bridge in the heat of the summer and listen to the water rushing below, even the air feels old.

  6. don l bergmann

    Those of us who attended the CT DOT heard many residents and many points, with by far the most predominant position being to preserve the existing bridge. The reasons included the fact that the height of the existing bridge precludes very high trucks, the narrowness of the roadway has significant calming effects on traffic and the appearance of the bridge is appreciated by all who spoke, including as an embodiment of historic significance. It also was clear that a new bridge would (i) be dramatically wider, (ii) be quite a bit taller, (iii) be unattractive, at least in my judgment, and (iv) eliminate most, if not substantially all the elements that cause the present bridge to be listed on the Historic Register and to be designated as “historic” by Westport’s governmental bodies. Also realized last night was that the location of a new bridge was not determined but could involve the taking of private lands by the State through eminent domain.
    Don Bergmann.

  7. Fred Cantor

    That’s a wonderful pic of the bridge by Michael Champagne. Michael, how did you manage to take that shot? Were you sitting in traffic at a red light? Thanks.

    Morley, that covered bridge in, I think, West Cornwall is such a treasure and I have fond memories of bicycling and walking over it during summer camp days back in the 1960s. Your last sentence describing the experience going across the bridge captures it beautifully–and transported me back almost 50 years.

  8. Elizabeth Thibault

    Thank you for that unique perspective, it really adds depth to the conversation. I will note, though, that many trucking companies and personal drivers use GPS software that doesn’t take certain logistical realities into consideration, just the mapping realities. If a road is there and allows certain types of traffic, it will route them there. (Waze is always trying to route me down Elaine Rd. and out to Bridge St. on Saxon Ln., just to avoid the traffic at the corner of S. Compo and Bridge St. It totally ignores the fact that Saxon is like a cart path, and that it’ll take even longer to get an opening in the traffic, just to pull out!) Don’t underestimate the ability of commercial trucking companies to ignore the need for local roadway knowledge.

  9. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    The Cribari Bridge is a treasure. I am tempted to call it a national treasure.
    It needs to be preserved for the integrity of the town, especially the Saugatuck Community. It is beautiful and it provides serenity, stability, and a unique service to the area. It calms traffic through the area and its visual appeal is charming and calming as well. When we preserve the past , know our history, it helps us understand where we are today and how we got here.
    Changing the bridge would be a tragic mistake.

  10. Sharon Horowitz

    Yes– I heard “eminent domain” mentioned as well– Are the residents of the Bridge street area and Saugatuck aware and ready for the implications of this?? Who other than DOT would benefit from this outcome–

  11. Wendy Crowther

    Morley Boyd and Don Bergmann — Thank you for articulating so beautifully the other facts that are driving the effort to preserve the current bridge – one of the most historical and iconic symbols in our town.

  12. Probably the most compelling statement I heard spoken last night at the DOT Hearing for preserving the bridge was uttered by a mom in the audience. She said something to the effect of: “Of course we must do this (preserve the bridge) because it is the bridge that preserves us and our neighborhood.” Amen!

  13. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Wondering if Michael Champagne is related to photographer Ed Champagne or sister Sue (Staples ’76)? Great photo, time in motion.

  14. Werner Liepolt

    “ ‘Trust me’ is something that probably doesn’t go along with DOT easily for a lot of people, right?”

    These are the words of ConnDOT Commissioner Redeker concerning the failure of several recent large scale projects: the fast lane bus fiasco in New Britain, the Stamford RR parking garage scandal, the Norwak Walk Bridge controversy and our little closed forever North Ave bridge.

    When I asked at the Wednesday night meeting about details in the replacement proposal DeStefano cites as desireable, I got no response.

    When I asked about the sidewalk to nowhere proposed for the south side of the bridge, the response was that the sidewalk was put in at the request of the town.

    When I asked whether ConnDOT was planning to exercise its right of way to place a side walk and cycling path on the front lawns of eleven of our neighbors I was told the plans hadn’t been set.

    Hardly trust inspiring.

    We need to see a far more detailed plan in order to trust ConnDOT with a multimillion dollar project that will have a large impact on the town’s residential character. That we got vagueness not details from the 15 or so ConnDOT employees–who consulted with our administration on Wednesday afternoon –on Wednesday night makes the path DeStefano suggests seem like another ConnDOT project to nowhere.

  15. The state wants to spend money. Whether the money is spent to advance the best interests of Westport or not, is not a consideration. The fact that the state is deeply in debt is not a constraint when there is $100 billion in pork to be spread. This is not about a bridge, it is about corruption and payoffs.

    It is absurd to maintain that a larger bridge will not attract more traffic.

    It is clear, the state will need to chew up private property to enlarge to bridge and make room for the additional traffic drawn to the larger bridge. Who will stand against the land grab and defend those affected ? Will homeowners need to file suit to prevent the state from taking their property? Will the town support the homeowners?

    Who will benefit from the proposed changes? The people who live in Saugatuck? The people who live in Westport? Perhaps some private firms connected to the Malloy and his cronies?

    Malloy is from the government, and he is here to help you.

  16. Jamie Walsh

    Old bridges, old homes, classic cars and classic boats all require maintenance and when parts wear out or deteriorate….they require repair. This bridge is an old bridge with good bones that need immediate attention. Let’s face it…government (DOT in this case) is lousy at preventative maintenance and this poor bridge has become the victim…pure and simple. The fact remains that it can be restored and at a greater cost saving then a new bridge. Aside from the historic and sentimental value this bridge holds, many residents rightfully expressed the inherent traffic calming effects the bridge has in restricting truck traffic that other wise would inevitably clog up both Bridge Street and Greens Farms road as well as increase traffic in Saugatuck that currently struggle with traffic during peak commuting hours. This is a no brainier and people should not fall for the BS that the DOT seemed to dish out last night in its non commital government language mumbo jumbo garbled explanation of their processes and assessments. They really picked the wrong town to tangle with over this issue.

  17. Joyce Barnhart

    I hope that the planners know that the reconstructed bridge of the 80’s had a design flaw that had to be corrected, probably at great expense. The understructure of the replacement bridge was built with the supports below running the long way, east to west, parallel to the road bed they held. This meant that no boats could pass underneath. It had to be fixed to have the supports/beams running the short way, north to south, parallel to the shoreline, so that smaller boats could pass under the bridge between those supports. This allowed that the bridge did not have to be opened for every vessel, only for larger ones.

  18. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    I’m compelled to post again. Anyone who thinks a new bridge is the answer did not live through the construction of I95. Eminent Domain took lands, ruined shore line, destroyed beautiful views , historic homes were lost, just
    plain destroyed or in a few cases moved to other locations. There was much heart ache. A new bridge will not appear overnight with no disruption of traffic or loss of beloved landmarks. Previously someone posted a remark saying that with a new bridge people could take a train to town and a water taxi to a restaurant. That is a pipe dream . Everyone is too interested in getting somewhere fast in their own insulated car with GPS and their own cell phone to distract them as they drive take a selfie once they are there. Saving the Bridge Street Bridge is the best way to proceed.

  19. Bart Shuldman

    Mr DeStefano–thank you.

  20. I regret not giving Mr DeStefano a standing ovation . that bridge is 26 years old with a old beat up hat sitting on top for looks.
    The restoration concept is ridiculous, it really doesn’t serve either side of the argument. IMHO leave it alone or complete replacement with character and a height restriction to stop the tractor trailers.
    again no one things about the traffic from openings .. A HUGE MISTAKE AGAIN just like 26 years ago.

  21. John Sirmons

    If Mr DeStefano is accurate in his recollection of what happened with the bridge in the 1980s, then unless the federal standards have changed, the DOT will have to comply with those vertical clearance standards either way. I think it will be a huge mistake to allow 18 wheelers to use the bridge. I’ve lived on Saxon Lane for 33 years, and the only way out is Bridge St. When the Thruway is jammed (which is about 3 times per week), there is a traffic jam of cars from the bridge sometimes all the way to the Sherwood Island connector. Imagine what that will be like if you add tractor trailers. If the only way to prevent that is to repair the bridge, then I believe that’s the way we should go. I’m not even getting into the historic value of the bridge, which is great.