Branchville bridge closings: State aims to keep one open at all times
One of the two bridges over the Norwalk River that connect the Branchville train station to Route 7 should always be open, according to . town and state officials who delivered that message to an audience of about 20 Branchville-area residents at a public meeting on Oct. 16.
When the Portland Avenue bridge is rebuilt at the south end of the station — and a traffic light added on Route 7, at its intersection with the bridge — the town will need to reopen the currently closed Depot Road bridge at the north end of the station.
That means the Depot Road bridge needs to be repaired and reopened before the planned renovation project on the Portland Avenue bridge — scheduled for spring to fall 2022 — can be undertaken, First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the meeting.
“Yes,” Marconi said when asked if Depot Road bridge would be addressed first. “And we have to move quickly on that, because it’s a safety concern ... .
“We are going to be looking at that bridge, and reopening it,” Marconi said of Depot Road. “That’ll be a separate project.”
A project to repair and reopen the Depot Road bridge — closed Oct. 3 due to structural deficiencies highlighted by the state — isn’t scheduled yet. There was even some talk of replacing it with a temporary bridge.
The Oct. 16 meeting with state Department of Transportation officials had been called to outline plans for the Portland Avenue bridge replacement project, which has been in the planning stages a few years.
The new Portland Avenue bridge is expected to complement the Branchville Transit Oriented Development or “TOD” project, which involves improving the area with new sidewalks, plantings and street lamps designed to enhance the neighborhood and encourage economic revitalization there.
A town meeting more than a year ago approved the town’s $442,000 share of the Portland Avenue bridge replacement, which is projected to cost $2,210,000.
The plan is to add a traffic light on Route 7 at the Portland Avenue bridge intersection. There’ll be three lanes of traffic — two 12-foot lanes for northbound and southbound through traffic on Route 7, and a 10-foot-wide left-turning lane for southbound traffic on Route 7 waiting at the new light to turn left into Portland Avenue.
“There’s enough room for a left turn lane. We’re also looking for a traffic light there. Getting out of there is very difficult. That’s one reason people are upset,” Marconi said.
The Portland Avenue bridge itself will also carry three lanes of traffic: one in toward the train station from Route 7; and two out, with a left-turn lane for cars coming out of the train station and going south on 7 and a right turn lane for cars coming out of Portland Avenue and going north on Route 7.
The plan would accommodate pedestrians with a sidewalk along the north side of the bridge, with a ramp leading to a crosswalk for pedestrians and wheelchair users who want to get across Route 7 when traffic is stopped by the light.
The Portland Avenue bridge is currently slightly over 27 feet wide and has two lanes of traffic, one in and one out. It was built in 1928, and the bridge’s pavement and concrete parapet were replaced in 2011, according to the state’s presentation.
The state drawings show the planned new Portland Avenue bridge with two 11-foot travel lanes and a third 10-foot lane. One 11-foot lane is for cars coming off Route 7 turning east onto Portland Avenue, and another for cars leaving Portland and turning south on Route 7 — across traffic, when allowed by the light. The third 10-foot lane is for cars leaving Portland Avenue and turning right onto Route 7 northbound.
The average daily traffic over the bridge is 3,567 vehicles per day, according to the state.
Heading up the state presentation was Priti Bhardwaj, supervising engineer, bridge consultant design, at the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
She said there are a number of reasons the bridge is being replaced, from its size to the “scour” conditions around the base of the bridge in the river.
“The town applied for the Portland Avenue bridge to be replaced under the department’s Federal Local Bridge Program because the bridge is functionally obsolete (bridge is geometrically not wide enough to accommodate the amount of traffic it carries) and scour critical (bridge foundations are susceptible to undermining),” Bhardwaj said.
“These are some of the required structural criteria that make this bridge eligible for funding under the Federal Local Bridge Program.”
She added, “The original bridge was constructed in 1928, and therefore is approaching the end of its design life. It is in need of remedial structural work, which in this situation, is a complete structure replacement.”
Also tied in with the Portland Avenue bridge reconstruction is a reconfiguration of the Portland Avenue rail crossing and, on the far east side of the tracks, the turn onto either West Branchville Road going north or Portland Avenue going south.
At the other end of the railroad station, Depot Road intersects Route 7 at the existing traffic light, across from Route 102 (Branchville Road). The Depot Road entrance-exit has been closed since early Oct. 3 — due to state concerns about the Depot Road bridge over the Norwalk River.
And to the east of the train station lot, Depot Road crosses the train tracks at the north end of Branchville station.
The state project also envisions eventually closing the Depot Road rail crossing to cars and trucks, so it would be a pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks at the north end of the station.
Although it is now closed and will have to be reopened to traffic during the Portland Avenue project, the Depot Road bridge across the Norwalk River might also become a pedestrians-only bridge once the rebuilt Portland Avenue bridge is reopened and providing access to the train station.
A resident asked why the plan called for eventually eliminating cars and trucks use of the Depot Road rail crossing, making it for pedestrians only.
That’s a longstanding railroad policy, according to Bhardwaj, the state engineer.
“Anyplace they can eliminate a crossing, they want to do it,” she said. “They’ve wanted to close it for a very, very long time.”
There would be a 2.2-mile detour — which state engineers say should take about six minutes — that is planned during Portland Avenue bridge reconstruction.
It would take traffic down Route 7 to Route 107/57 just south of Caraluzzi’s, and then onto Portland Avenue in Georgetown, and back north on Portland to either continue north on West Branchville Road or the cross the railroad tracks and connect with the Branchville Station where the new bridge is being worked on.
One resident questioned the need for the detour, if the Depot Road bridge was to be reopened during work on the Portland Avenue bridge.
“People that don’t know, they’d go the long way,” one member of the state team replied. “Locals would go the short way.”
They also said the detour could serve school buses and trucks that wouldn’t be able to use the Depot Road bridge.
In addition to the anticipated $2,210,000 cost of bridge replacement (80 percent federal, with the town’s 20 percent share $442,000) the work on the two railroad crossings would cost an estimated $4 million — which would be entirely covered by federal funds set aside specifically for railroad-related projects.
According to the state’s plan, all design work for the new Portland Avenue bridge would be completed in August 2021, advertising for construction bids would take place in September 2021, and construction would start the following spring in April 2022.
The anticipated construction time is six months, so it should be completed in the fall of 2022.
The state’s plan anticipates Portland Avenue bridge being closed five times — one for a week and four “weekend” closures.
The state lays out the following “construction staging” needs:
Stage 1 — Two weekend closures of Portland Avenue to install pile foundations and temporary sheet piles;
Stage 2 — One week closure of Portland Avenue to remove the existing bridge and install proposed precast elements and concrete slab;
Stage 3 — Two weekend closures of Portland Avenue to construct remaining cast-in-place concrete elements, and construct bridge approaches;
Stage 4 — Temporary lane closures with alternating one-way traffic for crossing and intersection modifications and miscellaneous construction tasks.
Essentially, the state’s work plan calls for a one-week closing Portland Avenue bridge, with four weekend closings — two weekends before and two after the one-week closure.
The state’s plan doesn’t call for a substantial change to the bridge’s elevation over the river, and isn’t designed to address flooding in the area.
“What’s the logic of that?” asked Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark
Thomas Ryan, director of engineering with Close, Jensen and Miller, the consulting firm working with the state, essentially replied that the potential flooding in Branchville was a much larger issue that couldn’t be addressed as part of the bridge replacement project.
“It’s not feasible,” he said.
“The flooding in the area is severe,” he said, “… All of Route 7 floods.”
Joe Ancona, a Branchville property owner, asked why the state didn’t attempt to address the flooding with an alternative solution that would involve widening the Norwalk River’s stream channel.
Ryan said that would involve a project of much greater scope.
“What you’re proposing is a major public works project — hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “...The whole river floods for hundreds and hundreds of feet north of the bridge, and hundreds and hundreds of feet south of the bridge.”
Some residents wondered about having two traffic lights as close together as is planned — the current light on Route 7 at Route 102 and Depot Road, and the proposed new one on Route 7 at Portland Avenue — essentially south of the existing light by just the length of the train station property.
The answer was that the lights would be timed together.
“After our project’s done there’ll be traffic lights at both intersections, and they’ll be timed with one another.”
Charles Fisher, the retired town engineer who now does consulting for the town, said that was all part of the Branchville TOD plan — a project he’d been deeply involved in.
“You’re going to have two lights in that whole area,” Fisher said, “all interconnected.”