NORWALK, Conn. — Most agree that, one way or another, a 122-year-old movable bridge on the nation's busiest passenger rail corridor needs to be fixed or replaced, given its tendency to get stuck and snarl traffic.
But Connecticut's plan to spend more than a billion dollars on a solution that includes a new, 240-foot vertical-lift bridge in Norwalk is stirring criticism from some taxpayers who say there is no need for such clearance — except for a handful of private sailboats with tall masts.
The existing Walk Bridge, or Norwalk River Railroad Bridge, carries four tracks that serve about 200 trains daily, including Amtrak. It has to swing open to allow larger boats coming in from Long Island Sound to pass through to reach a gravel company, a marina and a once-industrial waterfront area that now holds chic condominiums.
A century ago, the bridge had to accommodate schooners and tall commercial ships, but Norwalk Harbor Keeper, a conservation group that this year sued state and federal transportation officials, argues that cheaper and less environmentally disruptive alternatives were not adequately considered. The group has suggested building a new fixed bridge or welding the current bridge shut.
"Why are we going through all of this to build this gigantic, needless bridge, when it's so apparent that we can take care of the whole problem probably at half the cost?" said group member Bill Collins, a former Norwalk mayor. He estimated the state is needlessly spending at least $200 million for a new moveable bridge would be raised only for the occasional sailboat.
State officials contend the investment is important to protect full access to the Norwalk River waterfront for future generations.
"Waterfront is an amazing natural resource and an amazing community asset. And the shoreline, up and down Connecticut, is used by people who want to use the waterway and many of those have boats that don't fit under the bridge. So, you have to open a bridge," said state Transportation Commission James Redeker, who notes local support for the Department of Transportation's plans, despite the lawsuit.
Members of the city's Harbor Management Commission, for example, voiced concern that a fixed bridge could harm existing businesses along the northern part of the river, limit development and use of the river and possibly cause the city to lose future federal funding for dredging.
Meanwhile, online petitioners have called on transportation officials to evaluate alternatives. Some signers called the project "a massive waste of money" and "too disruptive" to the ecology and local shellfish beds, while other questioned whether there's enough boat traffic to justify the cost.
Handwritten logs from bridge staff show the bridge was opened 78 times in 2016, excluding tests. Of those, more than 30 for were for a single boat.
The 564-foot-long Walk Bridge, a hulking steel structure that rotates on a circular pier, is projected to see its rail ridership double by 2065. It got jammed as recently as the busy Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, delaying commuters on the Metro-North Railroad, which takes commuters to and from New York.
State and federal officials examined three options: rehabilitating the existing bridge, building a new fixed bridge or constructing a new movable bridge, Redeker said. The Transportation Department, he said, determined a modern lift bridge would cost 11 percent more than a fixed bridge, but that it was a price worth paying to preserve full access to the river while also having a modern structure that could last the next 100 years and not be vulnerable to a hurricane.
DOT said the $1.1 billion price tag includes engineering, rights of way and construction costs, including a new four-track interlocking system that will allow trains to switch tracks, improvements to another nearby rail line and rail storage area, and other related railroad and bridge projects.
Connecticut has received about $161 million in federal funding for the bridge from a program intended to improve the resiliency of infrastructure after Superstorm Sandy. The agency also intends to use other federal funds during construction.