Left with few options, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is rallying the support of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other entities to help press the federal government for money to replace a 118-year-old rail bridge over the Norwalk River.
"There is no doubt that we are now seeing the effect of decades of neglect when it comes to investing in our infrastructure," Malloy said Monday morning after holding what he described as a "crisis summit" with the MTA and Metro-North at Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
Malloy said Connecticut's congressional delegation was pushing the federal government for the money and he is seeking the support of nearby states that depend on the New Haven Line tracks for Amtrak service.
The Norwalk River rail bridge, which is known as the Walk Bridge in Connecticut Department of Transportation and Metro-North vernacular, has severely disrupted commuters twice in as many weeks, most recently during Friday evening's rush-hour commute, when it became stuck in the open position and stopped all train traffic.
In a best-case scenario, Malloy said, the replacement project could take as few as three years. But that's contingent upon the federal money coming through. The state doesn't have any other sources of funding to pay for the bridge replacement, the DOT said when it announced the federal grant application.
Connecticut applied for $349 million of federal Superstorm Sandy resiliency funding in April to help replace the bridge, arguing it is vulnerable to damage in major storms. The request was part of a $600 million grant request to improve the storm-resilience of Connecticut's aging rail infrastructure. The replacement project is expected to cost $460 million, with the grant covering 75 percent of the project and the state allocating for the remainder.
Maintaining the rail bridges is the state Department of Transportation's responsibility, not Metro-North's.
Malloy said it was inexcusable that previous administrations had done so little to remediate the bridge saying prior to his taking office, no work had been done since 1992.
In 2011, Malloy authorized $9 million for timber and railway replacements on the Walk Bridge, to be completed in December, though the repairs, he admitted, were only a stopgap fix.
The bridge was scheduled for replacement this year, but in 2010, Metro-North and the Connecticut Department of Transportation pushed the start date back to expedite the replacement of the aging overhead catenary power system.
In the short-term, Malloy announced the creation of a joint Connecticut-MTA task force to undertake an operational review of the bridge's functioning.
"Every procedure, protocol and engineering solution must get immediate attention of the most qualified team of experts to ensure reliable service for Connecticut commuters," Malloy said. "We've agreed to complete that review by mid-July. The Connecticut team is already assembled and ready to go."
The MTA pledged its support for Malloy's campaign at Monday's news conference at Grand Central Terminal.
"We're going to expedite the replacement of the bridge and, in the interim, reduce the frequency of openings," MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said. "And, when we do open, have a very, very robust procedure in place to increase the reliability of its opening and closing and seek outside and expert help in order to do that."
The Coast Guard requires Metro-North to open rail bridges for marine traffic on demand, though the state has special permission to keep the Norwalk River bridge closed during peak commute times.
The bridge swings opens five or six times a week to allow large vessels to pass under it, a process that shuts down all four rails, requires 30 to 40 people and takes as long as 90 minutes even when it's functioning correctly. The bridge has malfunctioned 16 times out of 271 openings in 2013, according to Blumenthal's letter Monday to Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard.
"The probability of the bridge's failing to close is so high -- and the consequences so enormous and unacceptable -- that urgent action is unavoidably essential," Blumenthal wrote.
But sailors said this could be a problem. Closing the bridge completely or even just reducing the times it could be opened would prevent boats from getting to his and other boat yards upriver of the bridge, said Paul Tomko, co-owner of United Marine, at 99 Commerce St. in Norwalk, which ends at the river.
"We rely on it heavily. Every sailboat needs it open," he said Monday by phone.
He estimates he needs the bridge to open about 120 times a year.
Devine Bros. Inc., which provides heating fuel, is also on the river and uses it for transportation.
"Devine Bros. Inc. is hopeful that Metro-North can remedy the current situation regarding the Walk Bridge," Tom Devine, the company president, said in an emailed statement. "Diagnosing and fixing the bridge issue for the short term is an important goal for the continuance of interstate commerce on the Norwalk River, as well as for the safety of train passengers."
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