Groton, Stonington won't fund North Stonington Road Bridge replacement next year

About nine years after the North Stonington Road Bridge over Whitford Brook in Old Mystic closed, orange signs tell drivers "Bridge Out" and it remains out of service.

The small structure, between Groton and Stonington, was found to be in poor condition following a torrential downpour in the spring of 2010.

Neither town has set aside funding for the bridge for fiscal year 2020, but local officials are eyeing fiscal year 2021 as the year they could fund the bridge replacement.

Old Mystic Fire Chief Ken Richards Jr. called the closure of the bridge "a public safety issue." With the bridge closed, fire trucks leaving from the Old Mystic Fire Department now make a right-hand turn heading into Groton at the intersection of Route 27 and Main Street by the Old Mystic General Store, said Richards. He described the right-hand turn as "very hazardous" for fire apparatus.

"We’ve had numerous close calls at that intersection," Richards said.

A couple of times when cars were parked in no parking zones, fire trucks were forced to go another route, delaying response time by three to four minutes, he said.

Funding at issue

The bridge's superstructure was found in need of repairs or total replacement during an inspection after the 2010 storm, but the storm did not cause the issue, according to a project description in Groton's Capital Improvement Program.

About five years ago, repairs started on the bridge, after both towns allocated funding, but it was determined that a new deck was needed and the project halted, the project description states. A $90,000 settlement with the engineering company in 2014 allowed for the hiring of "a consulting engineering firm to investigate the existing abutments and proposed alternatives to reestablish the bridge."

Groton was notified in 2016 that a project to replace the bridge qualifies for a $597,000 state grant, with Groton and Stonington then each needing to contribute about $300,000. The grant is in place, Groton Town Manager John Burt said.

In January 2018, the project was among the $4.3 billion in capital projects that former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cautioned would be "postponed indefinitely" if additional revenue were not allocated to the state's Special Transportation Fund. In May 2018, the state passed a budget that added revenue to the transportation fund for the upcoming fiscal year, the Connecticut Mirror reported.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said the cost of replacing the bridge has delayed the towns from doing the project. He described it as "a card game" between Groton and Stonington, where one will put aside funding for it, and the other won't, and vice versa.

"In this very difficult budget crisis where we are struggling like other towns to make ends meet and make taxes reasonable, we took the bridge project out of the budget, because there's been no progress for three years," said Simmons, who said he's supported funding the bridge in the past. 

Simmons said Stonington is trying to participate in replacing the bridge but the financial climate — with the potential for tolls, a possible new fee for towns to pay a share of the costs for teacher retirements, cuts to state aid, and other town projects that need to be done — is forcing the town to make hard choices.

The Groton town manager's budget also didn't include money for the bridge. Burt, too, has said the town has to make tough decisions, as it faces state mandates and potential state aid cuts, as well as costs associated with the schools project. He cited in the budget proposal that the bridge has been closed for a long time and the town has received few complaints about it.

At a March 28 Groton public hearing on the budget proposal, several residents asked the town to fund the project, raising concerns, including about emergency vehicles navigating the busy three-way intersection.

Fiscal year 2021

Simmons said Stonington has put a marker for the bridge project in the fiscal year 2021 budget as a reminder of its importance to the Old Mystic Fire Department, and will have to see what happens.

"We’re not forgetting about it," Simmons said.

Groton also potentially is looking at the project for fiscal year 2021.

The Groton Town Council did not consider this year funding the bridge, as the council believed Stonington was not going to fund it, but next year if the state and Stonington schedule funding for it, Groton would probably fund it, Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky said.

"Stonington has it tentatively in their 2021 budget for their portion, so that’s likely what we will look at doing, too," Burt said. "The bridge has been discussed several times over the years but the funding hasn’t been designated for it."

"Hopefully next year, it will all come together, and we can get it done," Granatosky added.

k.drelich@theday.com 

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