A Closer Look at the Latest Plans to Replace the Connecticut River Bridge

I will cut to the chase.

The plan currently on the table to replace the existing historic Connecticut River Railroad Bridge looks to be a good one, but let me break it down to the essentials…

Need

Why is Amtrak planning to spend an estimated $400 million ($759 million by other estimates) on a new crossing at the mouth of the Connecticut?

Well, the existing bridge, which dates to 1907, carries about 56 trains each day on the Northeast Corridor across the Connecticut River — 38 Amtrak intercity trains, 12 Shore Line East commuter trains, and 6 freight trains — at no more than 45 miles per hour.

The lift bridge also opens and closes more than 3000 times a year to accommodate marine traffic.

It comes down to speed and reliability.

And although the existing piers were actually constructed with enough room for an additional two tracks — in theory allowing for a new bridge to be constructed at lower cost and with minimal disruption on the existing foundation — Amtrak has opted instead for an entirely new structure in an effort they say to ease maintenance and to account for contemporary tolerances for seismic activity.

1970s-era view of the Connecticut River Railroad Bridge and extra capacity. (National Park Service)

Form

Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the replacement of the National-Register structure (yes, they register bridges) is planned in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office to meet the Secretary of The Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

Heading up that effort for Amtrak, is Bruce Clouette, a well-regarded expert on Connecticut’s historic bridges and railroads. Clouette earned a doctorate in history from the University of Connecticut.

You can find Clouette’s research and rationale for the new design — which SHPO provisionally supportedhere. It’s a good read.

Preliminary design recommendation

The design, which is now 60 percent complete, shows a bascule-style lift bridge — much like the current lift mechanism — on piers clad in Ashlar (fine-dressed) granite.

The new bridge presents a significantly lower profile, losing the massing of the distinctive truss structure, retaining a trussed lift structure, and adding visible catenaries (overhead wires).

In design, it has much in common with the planned vertical lift bridge crossing the Raritan River in New Jersey, if you ignore the towers necessary for the vertical-type lift which was not chosen for Connecticut.

Preliminary design for the Raritan Bridge

Function

The new design uses slightly closer-spaced piers, and proposes to move the lift portion of the design about 13 feet closer to the center of the channel — a modest improvement. The bascule design should modestly ease the transit of larger boats.

The location of the new Connecticut River Bridge, just 52 feet (center to center) to the south and nearer to the Sound, means that the new rail bed only slightly diverges from the existing corridor, and to the east reconnects to the existing tracks before crossing the Lieutenant River over the existing bridge.

Eastern limit of the work shown at the Lieutenant River

Construction

The construction, which will occur over a number of years, is significantly constrained by the lack of easy road access to the site, and likely presents the most concern for local residents in Old Saybrook and particularly in Old Lyme.

The design suggests staging areas near the quarry off Route 1 in Old Saybrook and at 17 Shore Road in Old Lyme — a wooded private parcel with existing ungraded dirt road access to the rail bed.

Proposed staging area, and widened access, at 17 Shore Road

These access points would require road widening at 17 Shore Road, and at Roamtree Drive in Old Saybrook.

The current plans show a staging area near near the rail bed at 17 Shore Road, connecting to the main road by 20-foot widened road, and then following the rail bed along a 14-foot wide road, across a temporary trestle bridge over the Lieutenant River, to the bridge site.

Temporary trestle over the Lieutenant River, showing 14′ access Road

Additional access at Ferry Road and at McCurdy Road in Old Lyme, pose possibly significant nuisance to neighbors, but the McCurdy Road access is notably lacking in the detailed 60 percent planning.

Outstanding questions

The majority of outstanding questions worth querying Amtrak involve traffic, construction, staging and timing.

In the earlier 2014 Environmental Assessment, the environmental planning stipulated a construction season, for the bridge at least, between November and April to avoid interfering with boat traffic and impacts to shortnose sturgeon in the river. Does that mean that the truck and vehicle traffic would be largely or entirely confined to these months?

With a construction schedule currently scheduled for 6 years, from 2024-30, it would be helpful to understand the frequency, intensity and periodicity of traffic to the site.

Will road access be used to move particularly large or heavy components to the site?

Given the low rail bridge and limited access at McCurdy Road, will any significant truck or vehicle traffic be routed along Lyme Street and through National-Register Historic District in Old Lyme?

Is Ferry Road in Old Lyme contemplated primarily as staging area for barge access, or will there be significant truck and vehicle access through the residential portion of Ferry Road?

In the end…

No plan for a project of this scale is perfect or without nuisance, but overall I have to say, I couldn’t expect much better.

So take a look at the plans here and here and we encourage you to send along your ideas, analysis and concerns to letters@ctexaminer.com

Latest from Opinion