Stonington will not fund two bridge replacements

Stonington — The proposed 2020-21 budget calls for permanently closing one bridge in town and not replacing another, possibly leading to its eventual closure and a detour.

The budget, which was approved by the Board of Finance last week and sent to a public hearing next month, calls for spending $15,000 to permanently close the North Stonington Road bridge, which has been closed since the March 2010 flood. It would have cost the town $318,000 to replace the bridge with the Town of Groton, which recently said it would pay for half of the work.

Meanwhile, the finance board eliminated $377,500 to help fund the town’s share of replacing the deteriorated Lantern Hill Road bridge over Whitford Brook. The town had an agreement with the Town of Ledyard to split the cost, as the small span straddles the border of both communities.

Board members cited their concern that a large number of taxpayers could be laid off due to the coronavirus, leading to a decrease in tax revenue, as a major reason for slashing the proposed capital improvements budget. The proposed overall town and school budget now calls for a 0.24-mill tax rate hike.

North Stonington Road Bridge

The decision to permanently close the bridge, located just west of the Old Mystic Fire Station, would end a long-running but unsuccessful effort to first repair and then replace it. An initial project to repair it was halted when crews doing the work discovered the engineering design had not accounted for the true extent of damage. And in years when Stonington appropriated additional money for the work, Groton did not. This year, Groton said it would but now Stonington has decided not to appropriate the needed funding.

Old Mystic Fire Chief Ken Richards and a group of Old Mystic residents have pressed the two towns for years to reopen the span. Richards has repeatedly said that without the bridge, his trucks responding to calls are forced to drive down Main Street and try to make a difficult turn onto Route 27 at the Old Mystic General Store. At times, due to cars and delivery trucks parked along the street or at the intersection, the firetrucks are unable to make the turn and must instead use Route 184, delaying their response by more than four minutes.

Richards said on 409 occasions in 2019 his trucks were dispatched to the Groton side of the fire district, requiring them to try and make the turn onto Route 27.

In addition, the closure means firefighters are unable to access the closest hydrant in the area and need three times the length of hose, which would require the closure of Main Street, Route 27 and Shewville Road while hampering the ability of emergency vehicles to reach a scene on North Stonington Road.

Richards’ repeated warnings to the two towns about his safety concerns could create a liability problem for the town in the future, if a firetruck is delayed in responding to a call and someone is harmed.

“This is definitely not an acceptable outcome for the fire district,” Richards said this week about the decision to close the bridge.

A total of 125 neighbors have signed a petition and the fire district’s attorney has sent letters on two occasions to the towns about the need to replace the bridge.

Richards said he and other supporters of replacing the bridge plan to attend the upcoming public hearing on the budget to push for the allocation of the money. That hearing has been scheduled for April 9 at 7:15 p.m. at the high school but that could change due to coronavirus precautions.

Lantern Hill Road bridge

While not many people live along Lantern Hill Road, it is a popular shortcut for people to get from Mystic to Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The initial capital improvement proposal had called for allocating $377,750 in 2020-21 and another $377,750 in 2021-22 to replace the bridge, with the state reimbursing the town for 50% of the cost.

While the town had an agreement with Ledyard to split the cost of the project, Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough told the Board of Finance last week that Ledyard officials had been “good neighbors” and let the town out of the agreement.

As of now, she said, the bridge is not failing and plans are to keep it open. She said the town is looking at some creative solutions to do that. These could include weight limits, alternating one-way traffic or closing the bridge with a gate and providing emergency responders with access to a lock box to get over the bridge.

At this point, Chesebrough said it is not clear how long the bridge can stay open. If it does have to close, drivers traveling north or south on the road and want to get past the bridge will need to take a detour estimated to be about 10-12 minutes along Shewville Road and Route 214.

Chesebrough said she has reached out to the Mashantucket Pequot tribe about sharing the cost of any project, as some of its patrons use the road.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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