One of two remaining swing bridges across the Connecticut River, from East Haddam to Haddam, is in desperate need of repair. The National-Register-eligible structure, located near to the Victorian-era Goodspeed Opera House, is an iconic sight for the Lower Connecticut River Valley.
“It will be a significant, substantial overhaul with rehabilitation of mechanical and electrical components as well as the structure and the deck itself,” said Kevin Nursick, the communications director for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “It will be a multi-year project with significant traffic impacts. You couldn’t really ask for a trickier bridge.”
The rehabilitation, scheduled for 2022, is projected to cost $50 million and expected to extend the useful life of the bridge just 25 to 30 years.
“We will be able to extend the bridge’s life for 25 years at a cost of $50 million. My concern is that we need to have a plan beyond that,” said Robert Smith, first selectman of East Haddam. “We have to be looking at it already that the bridge is 106 years old, with this project it only gets to 135. I wish there was a good answer to what the future is going to bring, but the town needs to think in the long run.”
According to the Department of Transportation, this sort of relatively short-term restoration is not out of the ordinary.
“Nothing out of the ordinary with the rehab keeping the bridge in a state of good repair for 25-30 years. There will obviously be lower level maintenance activities taking place within that time frame, but just like any other bridge, they generally need more robust repairs and rehabilitation over extended durations,” Nursick said. “So, the bridge will need additional work, due to wear and tear and normal deterioration that occurs over time, some 25-30 years after this project is completed.”
In the mid-20th century, when the then-new Route 9 was being constructed between Old Saybrook and Hartford, there was a thought to build a new bridge across the Connecticut River.
“One of the proposals going way back comes from the Connector at Exit 7,” Smith said. The exit loops out, toward the river more than is necessary because at the time, “building a new bridge at that location was on the drawing boards.”
The idea of removing the historic bridge is unthinkable for many in Haddam, East Haddam and the region.
“It is one of the most photographed features of the southern Connecticut River. If you take a picture of the bridge with the Goodspeed in the background, everyone knows where that is,” Smith said. “People around here love it.”
For many residents, the bridge never fails to bring a smile to their face, as it signifies that they are almost home, Smith said.
But whether or not that is sustainable is unclear.
According to Nursick, the 2022 rehabilitation project is a certainty.
“I don’t know the status of the funding at this time, other than to say this is a project we are going to move forward on and it is funded,” he said.
Details and disruptions
Deck replacement, a bridge railing, strengthening of the deck and swing truss, relocation of the electrical house and a reworking of the mechanical systems in order to make room for a southern-facing sidewalk are just a few of the components that will be part of the $50 million project.
The sidewalk – an additional $18 million component of the project – is not yet funded.
In 2018, Haddam and East Haddam applied jointly for a Federal Build Transportation Discretionary Grant to construct a walkway along the Swing Bridge that would connect the villages of East Haddam and Tylerville. It would allow for pedestrian access to the Goodspeed Opera House, Essex Steam Train, Andrews Marina, Goodspeed Station, Gillette Castle and other area attractions, according to Haddam’s town website.
The walkway has garnered support from the towns’ leadership as well as the state Department of Transportation, Connecticut Tourism Coalition, the Goodspeed Opera House and the Connecticut General Assembly.
“We strongly support this proposal because our staff, patrons and actors will benefit greatly from improved connections between our historic Goodspeed Opera house in East Haddam and the shops and tourist activities in Haddam,” wrote Michael Gennaro, the executive director of the Goodspeed Opera House to the Secretary of Transportation. “The proposed sidewalk project will be a safety enhancement and economic development generator for both Towns on the Connecticut River.”
The hope is that if the walkway is constructed, Haddam and East Haddam’s tourism industries will be able to grow substantially.
“A big impediment to increased commerce/tourism between the two towns is the fact there is no walkway over the Swing Bridge and anyone trying to walk or bicycle over the bridge is putting their lives in danger,” wrote Jeffry Muthersbaugh, owner of Nehemiah Brainerd House Bed & Breakfast in a letter to the first selectman of Haddam. “Constructing the sidewalk is as much a safety issue as it is a tourism/economic issue.”
Most of the changes planned for the rehabilitation are to bring the bridge up to a rating greater than 1.0 for operating and legal loads and to allow it to support the potential sidewalk, which would bring the overall rating up to Good. Currently, the rating is fair.
In addition to the bridge itself, Smith said the road leading through East Haddam up to the bridge is problematic.
“The approach on the East Haddam side is a very sharp corner which often causes issues with trucks. They get stuck damaging the trailers and the bridge when there are accidents, which happen often,” Smith said. “We might need a whole new traffic pattern there.”
Alternate traffic routes during the multi-year rehabilitation are a significant concern as well.
“We are trying to come up with plans to allow the bridge to stay open as much as possible during the multi-year project,” Nursick said.
The potential 16-mile detour required for when the bridge is closed to traffic poses a variety of problems for theater-goers and emergency services.
Currently, it is estimated that the bridge will need to be completely closed to car and boat traffic for at least 2 weeks during the rehabilitation.
“There’s absolutely no question this will be an impact,” Smith said. “The decision we need to think about though, is, is it worth it looking into the future.”