EAST HADDAM – The grainy photograph shows a crew from the American Bridge Co. working on the deck of the now-iconic Swing Bridge over an icy Connecticut River about four months before it first opened to cars and much fanfare in 1913.
And when a major renovation of the moveable steel span begins this month, American Bridge workers will be back on the job they finished 109 years ago when the only public transportation across the river here was by ferry.
The Pennsylvania-based company with worldwide reach has been awarded the $55 million state contract to repair and replace major systems of the bridge, which was considered an engineering marvel when it was built in only 14 months.
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“This project is just a little more special for us,” company spokeswoman Heather Engbretson told CT Examiner. “We are excited for all our jobs – but the project team is thrilled to start working on a structure that our predecessors built.”
Drivers who will be stuck at the bridge during lane closures or have to take lengthy detours when it is shut down completely during the two-year renovation will likely not share that thrill.
But there is good, albeit temporary, news on that front.
Originally slated to begin this spring, work on the bridge and the associated traffic headaches will likely not start until next year, officials say.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Josh Morgan said a construction schedule has not been finalized, and he did not provide further information.
But First Selectman Irene Haines told CT Examiner that details of the project’s timeline were discussed late last week at a meeting she attended of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce.
She said officials with DOT and American Bridge told the group that while preliminary staging work will begin this fall on both sides of the bridge, significant work on the bridge itself has been put off until next year.
“They’re going to start with building infrastructure on the west side of the bridge (in Haddam) for the sidewalk approaches this fall,” she said. “This winter they’ll work on the east side approach infrastructure. They foresee that no long-term closure will happen this year. The majority will happen next year.”
A groundbreaking event is expected to be held later this month.
The project was initiated when inspectors determined that the bridge’s superstructure had deteriorated to the point that it was jeopardizing its reliable operation.
Major repairs or replacement are needed to address 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.
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 midweek closures will allow deck-replacement work that would otherwise be impossible.
DOT estimates that there will be approximately 25 full bridge closures during the two years of construction, starting Sundays at 8 p.m. and ending Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
About 23 weeks of 24/7 alternating one-way traffic routing are expected.
Boat traffic will be impacted by closures from December through March in 2023 and 2024 of the span that swings open in its middle to allow passage of vessels taller than its 25-foot height.
That is necessary to complete mechanical and electrical work, including replacement of underwater cables that power the motors and massive ring gears that open and close the bridge.
Drivers and boaters will be given notice of the closures by DOT through a website and social media pages dedicated to the project and available at https://easthaddamswingbridgeproject.com.
Haines said DOT also will provide 90-day forecasts of the project’s progress, a 3-week schedule to allow planning for using the bridge and a link to a live-feed camera that will show whether it is open or closed.
She said both DOT and American Bridge are “well aware of the impact to the entire region and are committed to communicating as much as possible” with the public.
When completed, the new 6-foot-wide walkway cantilevered to the outside of the bridge is expected to enhance its role as a generator for tourism and commerce in the area.
It 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.
But during construction, the bridge project will undoubtedly be an impediment not only to drivers, but to businesses in the area.
Haines, who is also the town’s State Representative as well as its previous economic development coordinator and past president of the local business association, said she has been working with state and local officials to try to mitigate that commercial impact.
“We have some real solid ideas there and as soon as we have details we will be announcing the plan,” she said. “In the meantime, I can’t stress enough that although this project needs to be done, it is on all of us to continue to support our local businesses even if it takes a little longer to get there.”
For American Bridge, which was founded in 1900 via a JP Morgan-led merger of 28 bridge and structural companies, its return to the swing bridge after more than a century not only renews that historical connection, but carries great responsibility under what will be intense public scrutiny.
“It’s been amazing to see the interest in the project from the community,” company spokeswoman Engbretson said. “We know we have to be good stewards of an essential connection for the towns of Haddam and East Haddam.”