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Old Mystic bridge closure may be permanent

Mystic — After 10 years of unsuccessful efforts to repair and reopen the closed North Stonington Road bridge, it appears it will stay closed permanently.

That’s because the town of Stonington, which had appropriated money for its $318,000 share of the work over the past five years, has decided not to do so in the proposed 2020-21 budget due to other capital project needs. The money was removed from the budget in past years after Groton failed to appropriate its share of the project.

But now Groton plans to include its $318,000 share for the bridge in Town Manager John Burt’s proposed 2020-21 budget.

The bridge was closed in 2010 after a March flood damaged the small span that connects the two towns and frequently was used by the Old Mystic Fire Department North Stonington Road station to respond to calls. A previous project to repair the bridge was stopped when the contractor doing the work discovered the damage was much more extensive than thought by the engineering firm that designed the work. The two towns since have been unable to agree in the same years to appropriate the money needed to gain state funding for the remaining 50% of the project.

Burt said Tuesday that he decided to include funding in the 2020-21 budget because he has been “receiving many calls/comments/emails from residents asking about the bridge in the last few months, many more than I have in the last couple of years."

“I think people realize the state funding portion of the project won’t be there forever. People have also expressed concerns about delays for the trucks from Old Mystic Fire to get around without the bridge. The route they have to take without the bridge includes a sharp angle,” he said.

Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said Tuesday that last spring the Board of Finance, of which she was a member at the time, had agreed that would be the last time it would allocate money for the bridge because of other projects that would be coming up in 2020-21 and beyond.

Chesebrough’s proposed budget includes $15,000 to close the bridge permanently.

She added that in past years, the town has been able to use some of its undesignated fund surplus to help pay for additional capital improvements but the town can’t do that this year without endangering its bond rating.

Chesebrough’s decision came as 112 Old Mystic residents submitted a petition this week to the finance board calling on it to restore the funding to fix the bridge.

In addition a group of residents who live closest to the bridge sent a separate letter to the finance board urging the town to fix the bridge.  

“If Stonington officials think that our lack of complaints over the years equaled a lack of concern or interest, they would be mistaken. Instead, we have had confidence, so far misplaced, over these past 10 years since the bridge was damaged by flooding that the two towns would work together to get this done. Instead, we’ve seen a see-saw of financial commitment and withdrawal,” states the letter written by resident Marcel DuFresne.

“It’s hard to understand just what is going on, especially when the state DOT has consistently been willing over the years to fund one-half the project, offering an estimated $600,000. But we are told Groton officials are concerned the state might decide not to fund half the project in the future, which realistically would mean it would never be done. This may be a last chance,” the letter added.

The residents also warned Stonington officials that the letter is “to serve notice that Stonington and its officials would share responsibility should there be unnecessarily serious damage, injury or loss of life if fire trucks are delayed in reaching us because of the closed bridge. To us, the closed bridge is more than an inconvenience and an eyesore. We expect officials of both towns to take this seriously, because we certainly do.”

Chesebrough said she felt it was time for the town to make a final decision on the bridge instead of going back and forth each year. She said residents could ask the Board of Finance to restore money for the bridge at the April 9 public hearing on the budget.

Chesebrough said she understands the frustration of residents who live near the bridge and feel it is a safety hazard, as well as the longtime concerns of Old Mystic Fire Chief Ken Richards, who said the closure delays his department's response to calls, greatly increases the distance to a fire hydrant in the area around the bridge and creates a safety hazard for his trucks trying to turn onto Route 27 near the Old Mystic General Store. But she said she is trying to balance all of the pressing needs facing the town.

She added that later this year, she expects the town will have to ask residents to approve up to a $10 million bond to fund needed upgrades to the towns’ sewer system and treatment plants.

She said she already has eliminated $2.5 million in capital improvement projects and expects the finance board to cut up to another $2 million.

Other projects being considered for capital improvement funding include $1.5 million for sidewalks throughout town, including along Route 1 in Pawcatuck; $180,000 in new police cruisers, and $60,000 to partly pay for installing dashboard cameras in cruisers; $1 million in sewer system upgrades; $100,000 for a climate change program; $200,000 for repairs to West Broad Street School, and numerous repairs, including $2.6 million for heating and air conditioning units, at the middle and high schools.

A total of $377,500 also is in the proposed capital budget to pay to replace the Lantern Hill Road bridge. Chesebrough said that work is needed because if the road has to be closed, there would be a lengthy detour for emergency vehicles.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version correctly reports that the residents' petition is separate from a letter submitted by a group of neighbors who live near the bridge. It also correctly states that Groton had not approved funding for its share of the project from 2015-16 to 2019-20 .

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