FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Most of Connecticut's bridges are at least 50 years old – some even built as far back as the late 19th and early 20th centuries - and will need major upgrades or replacements over the next decade or two, said officials in the state's Department of Transportation.
Of the more than 5,000 bridges and elevated transportation spans across Connecticut, thousands are in Fairfield County and the cost to replace and repair them over the next 20 years will be in the billions, state officials said.
"In New England states like Connecticut we have older infrastructure than in other regions and we have to be extremely vigilant in keeping up with inspections, part-replacements and ultimately, entire decks and spans must be replaced," said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
There are already major projects underway in Fairfield County to replace bridges on and around I-95, the Merritt Parkway and local roads. Several of these will be completed next summer.
Among those are a $166.5 million project along the Merritt Parkway that includes replacing and upgrading historic bridges above the parkway and over the Mill River in the Fairfield area; and smaller projects, like the $2 million replacement of an I-95 ramp that connects the Connecticut Turnpike to Route 7 in Norwalk.
Even work on smaller bridges within towns in Fairfield County is often a major undertaking. Recently, workers were putting the final touches on a nearly 18-month project to replace two 1929 bridges with a modern structure that goes over the Mill River on Mill Plain Road in Fairfield. The new $2.4 million bridge was funded with federal and state grants.
"The original bridges were never meant to handle the tons of traffic that now go over the span," said one of the project supervisors, who declined to give his name. "The old bridges wouldn't have lasted much longer, that's for sure."
Also making the issue a hot topic in Connecticut, as well as across the country, was President Barack Obama's call last month on Congress to make replacing and upgrading bridges and infrastructure part of his $447 billion jobs plan.
"The president's proposals will be a direct benefit to Connecticut residents and businesses," said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy "For example, by investing in infrastructure his proposal would put people to work." Malloy said last June that investing in the state's roads and bridges was long overdue.
"For decades we have woefully neglected our transportation infrastructure and we are now forced to face the grim reality that our roads and bridges are badly in need of repair," said Malloy said. "Most importantly, these projects represent an investment in the state, in our workforce, and in the safety of all of Connecticut's travelers."
Safety of bridges has been a major concern in Connecticut ever since the infamous Mianus River Bridge collapse in Greenwich 29 years ago. When the northbound I-95 bridge span over the Mianus River collapsed in the early morning hours of June 28, 1983, plunging three people to their deaths and seriously injuring three others, Connecticut was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
While the number of casualties was kept low because the bridge collapsed at 1:30 a.m. – hours before the morning rush hour would have likely meant hundreds of deaths – the faulty design and lack of up-to-date inspections exposed many of the hidden dangers drivers faced while making routine trips over elevated infrastructure.
It wasn't the kind of center stage Connecticut was seeking.
As a result of the collapse - later determined to have been caused by a faulty hang pin-design that was supposed to hold the main bridge deck in place - Connecticut has remained one of the haunting symbols of the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
That the collapse occurred in one of the most affluent towns in the country helped even more to dramatize the urgent need to upgrade and replace many of the country's aging and failing bridges.
Millions of dollars were spent both here and across the nation to ensure improved technology and more frequent inspections.
"The Mianus River Bridge collapse was one of those cataclysmic events that forever changed the way we make bridges and the way we inspect them," said Nursick. "It's fair to say it impacted not only our state, but the entire country and (infrastructure) industry. It's something we believe couldn't happen today because of the improved technology and the greater frequency of inspections."
Nursick said after the bridge collapse, superior technology was developed, and back-up safety systems were put in place that prevent bridge spans from falling even if a key component fails.
But, he reiterated, "Bridges must be carefully and frequently monitored. That is one of the lessons we learned from the Mianus collapse."
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