The billion dollars bridges

Twice in recent days, all Metro-North (and Amtrak) train service was disrupted for three hours in peak travel times because of one broken bridge: The 117-year-old Norwalk River Bridge in the city of the same name.

Because this swing-bridge is so old and in such bad shape, it wouldn’t close, severing all train service and forcing replacement bus shuttles incapable of handling the crowds. These are but the most recent problems on this bridge, and they won’t be the last.

Governor Malloy says this is “outrageous” and is calling for a sit-down with Metro-North. (Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall at that bully-session?)

What the governor doesn’t admit is that Connecticut is responsible for that bridge, not the railroad. Any reasonable civil engineer (and CDOT has many), would have replaced that bridge decades ago.

Instead, in the last two years alone, Governor Malloy (like Rowland and Rell before him), diverted millions in Special Transportation Fund monies into balancing his budget instead of replacing or repairing old bridges. It is disingenuous for the governor to express outrage at and blame others for a problem he exacerbated, but hey … that’s politics. Blame everyone but yourself.

Instead, the governor is asking Uncle Sam to use Super Storm Sandy money to pay 75% of the expected $465 million in replacement cost of that bridge, a six-year construction project.

But the old bridge will still be in use until at least 2018 and, doubtless, will fail again. Each time it won’t close, rail service will halt.

Why not keep the bridge closed? Too logical. The handful of boats that use that river have historic and legal right-of-way over the 120,000 daily rail riders. And that includes heating-oil-carrying barges, not just pleasure craft.

But this is but one of five railroad bridges in need of replacement. The highly respected Regional Plan Association’s recent report said it will cost $2.8 billion to replace those five crossings, four of them in Connecticut, built in 1904.

Who’s going to pay all that money? You guessed it, Connecticut taxpayers! Why, because we delayed this work for so many decades and, more importantly, because our state owns the tracks, the bridges, the power lines and signals. Remember, Metro-North owns nothing in Connecticut.

Back in 1970 when New Haven RR parent Penn Central went bankrupt and Conrail then got out of the commuter rail business, the MTA and Metro-North were born. Both New York and Connecticut agreed they would own the tracks in their respective states while Amtrak went on to own the rest of the Northeast Corridor. Ownership has its privileges and obligations (costs).

So here’s a modest proposal: Why doesn’t Connecticut sell the New Haven mainline to Amtrak/Uncle Sam/“The Feds” for $1 and let them be responsible for fixing those bridges? Remember … Amtrak trains run on those tracks as well as Metro-North. This railroad is a national resource worthy of federal spending.

 

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You may reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

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