A Tale of Two Bridges

An FRA document showing the approximate scope of the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study (Credit: FRA)

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On Wednesday, the Federal Railroad Administration announced $30 billion of shovel-ready projects along the Northeast Corridor to begin construction by 2024 — including replacements of the Walk Bridge squeezed through downtown Norwalk and the Connecticut River Railroad Bridge between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme. Each is estimated to cost $1.08 billion.

FRA also announced plans for replacing the Housatonic, Saugatuck, and Mianus River Bridges — $3.07 billion, $580 million, and $2.04 billion projects.

That’s a heck of a lot of money — all 80/20 federal/state matches.

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But unless you’ve given up entirely on rail travel, it’s hard to argue against replacing the last century-old moveable bridges along the Northeast Corridor — we won’t.

The existing moveable bridge over the Mianus River in Cos Cob (Credit: Google Map Data 2022)

Now, here’s the puzzle…

The Connecticut, Housatonic, Saugatuck, and Mianus River bridges are all bascule lift-bridges built between 1904 and 1907. The Connecticut River Bridge is by far the longest at 1660 feet. The Saugatuck, the shortest at 458 feet. The Mianus and Housatonic are in-between at 1059 feet and 1052 feet.

As project comparisons go, these aren’t apples and oranges. So, it’s no surprise that the Saugatuck — the shortest bridge — is also the cheapest to replace.

But how the heck is the Housatonic estimated to cost three times the Connecticut River Bridge replacement — the longest of the five bridges– and the Mianus estimated to cost double?

We asked FRA and the Connecticut Department of Transportation and got nowhere, leaving us to wonder whether the agencies are simply unresponsive — after all it took six years for FRA to provide us with public documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act — or whether there are more ambitious plans like curve straightening or a realignment tucked into the Housatonic and Mianus River budgets. Not that ambition, even at significant cost, is necessarily a bad thing.

The existing moveable bridge across the Connecticut River (Credit: Google Map Data, 2022)

Now here’s the rub.

FRA also announced on Wednesday that they will relaunch the last phase of NEC Future planning, stalled since 2017, to settle once and for all a high-speed rail solution between New Haven and Providence.

The last attempt, you might recall, was stalled by overwhelming public opposition, centered on Old Lyme and Charlestown, RI, where the proposed solutions posed the highest impacts of any rail projects between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

What we don’t know yet, is whether this “New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study” will be a vehicle for FRA and CTDOT’s much more maximalist off-corridor solutions or for pragmatic, incremental change.

Short of transparency from CTDOT and FRA, solving the puzzle of the inflated Housatonic and Mianus Bridge budgets may be the best way divining their intentions.

But the fact that state and federal agencies have not yet reached out to any of the potentially impacted towns to announce the start of the study or offer a seat at the table is a worrying sign that once again things are heading off the rails.