A significant but relatively little known plan is underway to replace the aging railroad lift bridge that spans the Connecticut River between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.
The estimated $400 million project, proposed by Amtrak, would construct a new bascule bridge 52 feet south of the existing structure. The original bridge, which dates back to 1907, is an essential link on the Northeast Rail Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. and would remain operational during construction. The existing structure will be largely removed once the new bridge is completed.
Though few town officials seemed to know about the plan, it resurfaced locally on the Harbor Management Commission agendas in Old Saybrook on April 20 and in Old Lyme on May 12.
Each town was presented with a Pre-Submission Consultation Form from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Land and Water Resources Division as part of an application for a Structures, Dredging & Fill license and/or Tidal Wetlands license.
Each Harbor Management Commission was asked to determine whether the proposed work, as described in the packet, was consistent with the town’s Harbor Management Plan.
The Old Saybrook commission found the plan to be consistent with the town’s Harbor Management Plan, with two recommendations, said Jennifer Donahue, clerk for the Old Saybrook Harbor Management Commission, on Wednesday.
“They recommended that the project time the two periods of river closure outside of the boating season and asked that Amtrak consider reuse of the railroad bed for a public access point,” she said. “They signed off otherwise that the plan was consistent with the town’s Harbor Management Plan.”
During the Old Lyme Harbor Management Commission meeting Tuesday, chair Steven Ross said the concept was acceptable, but the plan was missing too many details.
“From what I’m hearing this plan is not fully fleshed out and I don’t think we’re in a position to give them our approval without more information about questions,” he said. “I think in our message to them we need to say we need more information before we can give you our opinion as to whether or not this conflicts with our harbor management plan.”
The Old Lyme commission voted unanimously to delay approval.
Challenging site access
One significant concern is that the construction of the new bridge, a structure roughly 1600 feet in length, “lacks any convenient, direct connections to local roadways for construction equipment and materials,” according to the application form.
Project documents identify three potential routes to access the worksite. The first is from Ferry Road in Old Lyme. The second access is identified in the area of McCurdy Road as it is crossed by a railroad overpass. That bridge poses a significant obstruction for trucks and construction vehicles, raising the prospect of trucks being rerouted through the historic district along Lyme Street. The third route appears to follow an existing dirt right of way at 17 Shore Road.
A temporary trestle bridge is proposed for construction across the Lieutenant River to accommodate construction vehicles. Another proposed temporary trestle bridge will extend to the Connecticut River as “a potential means of turn around for vehicles with the dual-use as barge access.”
In Old Saybrook, two potential routes have been proposed to connect the railroad right of way to Route 1. One travels “through a private quarry and the second through Roamtree Drive, a private road.” The routes will need to be widened by 10 to 20 feet to allow vehicular access.
The plan also proposes a temporary trestle bridge that will extend into the river at the western abutment in Old Saybrook.
Not all materials will be trucked in. “Waterborne craft,” including barges, will likely be used for “substantial construction operations, including abutments and abutment, wingwalls, piers, superstructure erection, and demolition of the existing bridge,” according to project documents. Dredging will be required to provide proper access for barges, “including within the navigable channel limits and tidal wetlands.”
The proposed bridge design would increase the width of the channel from 148 feet to 150 feet and shift the channel 14.5 feet west toward the center of the river.
According to a 2014 Environmental Assessment completed for the project, this widening and shifting of the channel “could potentially provide additional navigation advantages and reduce the risk of vessel impact.” The existing channel’s off-center location, which is close to the eastern shoreline, currently creates an ebb tide current that “tends to pull marine vessels into Pier 5 (the west channel pier).”
The new bridge will also raise the vertical clearance from 18 feet to 24 feet in the closed position. In the existing structure, vertical clearance is 68 feet in the open position. The new bridge will provide unlimited vertical clearance for a 90-foot-wide section of the channel and at least 74 feet of vertical clearance for the full width of the channel, according to the plan.
During construction, the project would remove part of the Connecticut DEEP boardwalk, located at the end of Ferry Road in Old Lyme, and rebuild it “in kind” after the new bridge is completed.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, Congress required that federal agencies take a “hard look” at all federally funded and permitted projects which may pose significant impacts to the manmade and natural environment.
In November 2016, the Connecticut River Bridge Replacement concluded the NEPA process with a “Finding of No Significant Impact,” allowing the project to move forward without significant impediments.
That process was initiated, according to planning documents, when “Amtrak conducted a 2006 inspection, which determined the bridge was structurally deficient and determined that periodic rehabilitation work was no longer sufficient to keep the century-old bridge functional.”
The Environmental Assessment for the project, required under NEPA, was available for public view and comment in 2014, at the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme and the Acton Library in Old Saybrook, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
In an email Wednesday, Jason Abrams, public relations manager for Amtrak, said Amtrak, under the direction of the Federal Railroad Administration, assisted in preparing the NEPA documents and completed a full Environmental Assessment for the project that addresses environmental concerns, including boating and fishing.
“With the release of the FONSI, the NEPA review for this project is complete. Additionally, the FRA has satisfied its compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA with the execution of a Memorandum of Agreement with Amtrak and the Connecticut Historic Preservation Office,” wrote Abrams.
Asked about the project on Wednesday, Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said he had not heard of it, but added that the bridge was owned and maintained by Amtrak.
According to the 2014 Environmental Assessment, construction “to the extent practicable” would be scheduled in the offseason between November and April to minimize disruption to the boating community, and channel closures would be coordinating with the United States Coast Guard and “maritime community.”
Amtrak estimated, as part of the planning, that “river navigation closures will occur only during the installation of the movable span and a portion of the existing bridge demolition and will last approximately two days.”According to an NEC Commission project website, the final design phase of the planning is expected to be completed in 2022. Construction, which requires additional permitting and the availability of funding, is scheduled to begin 2024 and to be completed in 2030.