STAMFORD – The intricate iron arches of the historic bridge, fabricated during the nation’s Gilded Age, still stand, but barely.
They’re no longer needed – a sleek, lower-arched, prefabricated bridge now spans Mill River.
The only thing the side-by-side bridges have in common is the color of rust, the 1888 one because of corrosion, the new one a paint choice.
Once the city’s contractor connects the newly installed bridge to sidewalks, most likely by the end of next month, pedestrians finally will have a safe crossing over the river.
But the 20-year West Main Street bridge battle has not ended.
That became clear during the November meeting of the Board of Representatives Operations Committee, when members again challenged city officials about the bridge, which connects the working-class West Side to the prosperous downtown.
The prefabricated bridge is only for pedestrians and ambulances. A question remains whether the 135-year-old bridge can be restored to handle all traffic as it did until 2002, when the state Department of Transportation closed it to cars because of its deteriorated condition.
Implications of economic disparity have long washed over the 125-foot West Main Street bridge. It sits in the middle of Mill River Park, the jewel of downtown and the dividing line between that neighborhood’s glass-and-steel high-rises and the lower-income West Side.
A room with an elephant
Many West Side residents use the bridge to walk to downtown jobs, stores and bus stops, and many want it to be reopened to car traffic, saying it’s crucial to the success of neighborhood businesses.
But officials with the Mill River Collaborative, a conservancy that manages the ongoing renovation of the park, want the bridge limited to foot traffic. Vehicle traffic would cut the greenway in two and disturb it as an oasis, collaborative officials have said.
During the meeting, city Rep. Sean Boeger said the question about use of the old bridge is “the elephant in the room.”
“There are those of us on the board who are concerned that the temporary bridge will become a permanent bridge,” Boeger said. “We’re concerned that once everything is done, this (prefabricated) bridge will be left there, and the original bridge will be taken away.”
Nothing contradicts his premise, Boeger said to Director of Operations Matt Quinones and City Engineer Lou Casolo, who met with representatives to update them about the bridge.
“We’re not hearing back from the city, ‘No, no, no, that’s not what we’re going to do,’” Boeger said. “This is looking more like a permanent structure than any thought of restoring the historic bridge.”
It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of only eight of its kind left in Connecticut, and one of the few historic structures remaining in downtown Stamford.
Quinones said his office hired a consultant to study the city’s options for the bridges.
“They will review feasibility, cost and timelines,” Quinones said. “They’ll publish something in early spring for the board to discuss.”
Conduits, consultants and bollards
Casolo said the old bridge carried crucial utility pipes that have mostly been transferred to the prefabricated bridge.
“The electric conduit placement is done. The telecom conduit placement is done. The water line on the old bridge was abandoned but we have a new one on the new bridge,” Casolo said. “The gas line is still being transferred over, but the new bridge can open before that’s finished.”
The transfers had to happen because “it could be catastrophic if the utilities were damaged,” Casolo said.
“To do anything to the existing bridge, we have to deal with utilities first,” he said. “Whatever comes out of the study, whatever gets funded, the utilities would have to be temporarily moved anyway.”
City Rep. Kindrea Walston wanted clarification about which emergency vehicles can drive over the prefabricated bridge. Casolo said it’s designed to handle ambulances only.
Walston asked how ambulances will access the bridge at the same time regular traffic will be kept off. Casolo said the bridge will have bollards – posts at both entrances that ambulance drivers will have to get out and remove.
City Rep. Jeff Stella had several questions about the need for another study, saying options have been discussed and consultants have provided estimates for years. Costs have ranged from $3.5 million to $5 million, Stella said.
“I can’t see a reason why work on the old bridge hasn’t started,” Stella said. “Why are we waiting until the spring to get another proposal?”
Casolo said the other projects had different scopes and designs. This one, for example, will look at whether the historic bridge can be renovated to carry cars and whether it should be realigned with street intersections, Casolo said.
A colonist crossing
The old bridge is steeped in American history.
The first one at the site was built of wood by colonists in the 1600s. In 1888 the city ordered a double-span, wrought iron lenticular truss structure from a Connecticut company, Berlin Iron, which built 100 bridges statewide and 500 in other states.
Stamford at the time was adding people, manufacturing, and a new invention – the gas-powered automobile – and needed stronger bridges. Around 1900 the city put in concrete piers so trolley cars could travel over the bridge.
By 1970, the city had built Tresser Boulevard as part of Main Street and, in 1982, the Stamford Town Center mall went up, cutting off Main Street. The two projects significantly reduced the number of cars using the West Main Street bridge.
It was allowed to deteriorate. In 2000, the state Department of Transportation put the bridge on its repair list. Two years later, the department closed it to cars for safety reasons.
As the bridge continued to corrode, Casolo began closing it to pedestrians during rainstorms, fearing that a fast-running river and the debris it carries could wreck the supporting piers. The engineering department added aluminum gangways to ensure pedestrians would be safe.
The November meeting ended with the committee chair, city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, making a motion to keep the discussion open.
“Given the long history of this project,” de la Cruz said to unanimous approval, “I move to recommit it … so it can be taken up in the future.”