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Tourism, Traffic, Migrating Fish and Birds — All Part of Planning the Swing Bridge Overhaul

EAST HADDAM – The first alert is a loud rapid-fire clang of a warning bell like at a railroad crossing, followed in quick sequence by flashing red lights and the wail of a siren.

As the sound fades into the air high above the Connecticut River, vehicle-blocking gates on either side of the East Haddam Swing Bridge drop into place. Foot-high steel barriers rise from the deck as further precaution.

In a small room over the bridge with windows on all sides, an operator scans live video monitors to ensure all is clear, then presses a series of buttons on a control panel.

The massive engines and spinning gears under the bridge engage with a rumble, shuddering the control room as the easternmost span rotates from its middle to the south, creating a wide opening straight down the river.

And for the next eight minutes or so during the opening and closing, it gets very quiet.

The distinctive and persistent metallic hum of vehicles rolling on the open-grid steel deck is shushed, as vessels with masts or equipment too tall to pass under the 25-foot-high span when closed glide silently through the gap.

It’s a familiar ritual to virtually everyone who lives in the area — scenic or aggravating depending on how much of a rush you’re in — since the iconic bridge opened in 1913 to a Ford Model-T parade and a concert drawing thousands.

But now with a major overhaul scheduled to begin in the spring of 2022, drivers can expect delays and occasional extended closures on a much more regular basis. Instead of the typical 8-minute wait, closings will sometimes last for up to 63 hours as the span is rehabilitated and a new pedestrian walkway is installed along its south side.

“A project of this size and complexity is always going to be invasive,” said Andy Cardinali, lead engineer in the bridge-design unit at the state Department of Transportation. “But we try our best to minimize the impact to the public and before we start we want everyone to understand what’s going on.”

The $57 million project — with an 80 percent federal match — was launched when inspectors determined that the bridge’s superstructure had deteriorated to the point that it was jeopardizing its reliable operation. Corroding steel on the deck and the supportive structure under it, and an aging electrical system that often failed and caused the bridge to get stuck in the open position, were among the major areas of concern.

What Cardinali calls “band-aid” work was performed a few years ago to mitigate issues with the opening and closing mechanism, but it was clear it was time for a full-on renovation.

“In order to keep this bridge in a state of good repair a major overhaul is needed every 25 to 30 years,” he said, adding that the bridge is safe and drivers should have no fear crossing it.

Much of the renovation work will restrict traffic to alternating one-way directions.

During full closings, drivers will be detoured up to 29 miles through local roads to reach one of only two other bridges that cross the Connecticut River in the southern half of the state – the Arrigoni Bridge on Route 66 between Middletown and Portland and the Baldwin Bridge on Interstate 95 between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.

The 63-hour closures — which will be scheduled midweek from Monday to Thursday to minimize impacts to tourist traffic — will allow deck-replacement work that would otherwise be impossible.

Construction also will be adapted to accommodate weekend Broadway shows at the historic Goodspeed Opera House. The landmark stage sits just feet from the bridge’s east end, and is perhaps the most popular attraction in the immediate area.

“We don’t want to interfere with people coming and going and to have all that noise going on during the shows,” Cardinali said.

River travel by oversized boats and barges, which can now rely on regular hourly openings in temperate seasons, will be limited and sometimes completely shut down from passage.

The bridge will remain closed to marine traffic during the winter of 2023-24 to allow work to be done on the complex electrical system that powers the motors and enormous ring gears that open and close the bridge. Passage by smaller boats may also be restricted when work is being done directly in the river channel under the bridge.

And then there’s the sturgeon.

A big, bony fish native to the river, it was once extirpated but is now making a comeback under the watchful eye of state and federal agencies.

Concerns that the intensely bright lights that will be used in nighttime bridge repairs may interfere with the sturgeon’s annual spring spawning migration downriver means the work will be scheduled around their runs.

An array of federal and state agencies have a say in the project, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“All of these different groups have input on when we can do certain things,” said Rahbi Barakat, a principal department engineer on the project. “The permits get very complicated.”

The 6-foot-wide walkway, cantilevered to the outside of the bridge, will allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross from the Goodspeed Opera House driveway on the east side to the Eagle Landing State Park access road along the west bank in Haddam.

Courtesy of the Connecticut Department of Transporation

Street-level sidewalks approaching the bridge on either side will be installed to give access to the walkway, and both will be built for use by those with disabilities. Planned safety features include lighting, a new camera system for the bridge operator to monitor traffic, and pedestrian warning gates.

A steel osprey nest platform that has housed the fish-eating raptors for years will be moved from the south side of the bridge to the north to prevent large sticks and other debris from falling onto the walkway and its users.

Area officials say the walkway project will magnify the bridge’s role as a spark and literal conduit for tourism and commerce in the area.

“It will give us a new vantage point to naturally appreciate the Connecticut River from above like never before,” said State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex. “It will provide new recreation and transportation opportunities, making Haddam and East Haddam more connected and walkable.”

State Rep. Irene Haines, R-East Haddam, who is also the town’s economic development administrator, said the walkway “will strengthen our combined commitment to the two towns’ partnership as well as the entire region’s tourism and economic development.”

Sam Gold, executive director of the regional planning organization, RiverCOG, said the bridge and sidewalk projects have the potential to do nothing less than reinvent the area and infuse it with tourists’ dollars.  

He envisions a scenario in which visitors can take the Essex Steam Train from Old Saybrook to Haddam, walk across the bridge to East Haddam and attend a show and have dinner before getting back on the train.

And if a proposal materializes for shops and a boutique hotel to be built in East Haddam as part of a planned commercial development of the downtown village, he said, that scenario could expand into an overnight stay and lunch and shopping and other pursuits the next day there or in other towns in the area.

“The longer a person stays in a place the more money they spend,” Gold said. “We have all these opportunities, but they haven’t been strung together in a way that creates this multiplying effect.”

Acknowledging the disruption that the bridge work will cause, Gold said the long-term benefits far outweigh any temporary setbacks.

“It’s like sending a car out for a major overhaul,” he said. “You put up with it because when you get that car back it’s going to be souped-up with all kinds of add-ons.”

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