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    Friday, May 17, 2024

    DOT proposes $25.5 million plan to replace Stonington borough viaduct

    Walkers move across the Stonington viaduct on Thursday, May 25, 2023. There is a proposal to replace the bridge, which is the sole entry into Stonington Borough. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A state Department of Transportation plan to replace the viaduct into Stonington borough calls for taking a portion of the Stonington Community Center thrift shop (left) and closing off this section of Cutler Street to traffic. (Joe Wojtas/The Day)
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    Stonington — In a move that could have significant impacts on residents and some private property owners, the Department of Transportation has expressed its intention to replace rather than repair the 83-year-old Alpha Avenue viaduct at a cost of $25.5 million.

    During the year-long project, slated to begin in the spring 2026, traffic would flow along one side of the 625-foot-long span, while crews replace the other side. Once that work is complete, drivers would move to the new section so the remaining half of the bridge can be replaced.

    The plan also calls for permanently closing off Cutler Street as well as Mathews/Main Street, which means drivers can no longer drive under the viaduct in those locations. This would require drivers to take alternate routes to avoid the dead-end streets.

    A consultant’s report on the project also states the plan would require the taking of “a part of a building,” which is shown in a photo as the Stonington Community Center’s Thrift Shop on Cutler Street which is next to the viaduct, parking lots and a portion of a boatyard.

    While the boatyard is not identified by name, the only boatyard near the viaduct is Dodson’s Boatyard which uses its property along the viaduct to store boats in the off season.

    Plans also call for raising the height of the bridge by at least 3 feet, 7 inches because it currently does not meet the required clearance over the electrified Amtrak line below.

    “It’s so early on, but I would say two things of import would be: Why are you doing this -- why is it a replacement and not a repair, and that hasn’t been explained -- and what’s the impact,” Warden Michael Schefers said on Wednesday about the DOT’s plan.

    According to an April 20 letter to former borough Warden Jeff Callahan and a DOT draft press release, the DOT is seeking to replace the bridge even though the engineering consultant it hired for the project, CHA Consulting Inc. of Mansfield, recommended one of the three other repair options -- a $13.3 million rehabilitation of the bridge that takes no land and leaves Cutler, Main and Mathews streets open.

    In the two documents, the DOT said the 83-year-old bridge is in poor condition, and that it is developing plans to replace it. The letter also said the DOT does not anticipate holding a public hearing on the plan, but that a public information meeting will be held after the preliminary designs are completed toward the end of this year.

    The press release states the federal government will pay for 80% of the project, the state 5% and the town 15%, or $3.8 million.

    The DOT did not respond to questions from The Day this week about the project.

    Town, borough and DOT first discussed plan in January

    A virtual meeting between the DOT and town and borough officials, including First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough, Callahan, Town Engineer Chris Greenlaw and a member of the Public Works Department, was held in January during which the DOT presented three potential plans for repair and a fourth for complete replacement of the sole access point into the borough.

    “Our understanding, based on their presentation to us is that they are going with option four, which was the full replacement, which comes with, from our view, some more concerns about the impact,” Chesebrough said Wednesday.

    “There are some significant changes to the area with the full replacement, which is where the concerns got raised,” she said, adding, “There’d be two different dead ends where the fields are for the (Stonington Community Center) COMO field, and then one on the borough side closer to the firehouse.”

    “We want to understand -- there has to be enough room obviously for firetrucks to turn around, and in order to do that, does that mean taking of land,” she said.

    The report prepared by CHA Consulting, Inc. discusses the four potential options for the bridge, which last saw significant work in 1992.

    The fourth option, the $25.5 million replacement was not recommended by the firm for a number of reasons including the impact to private property. But it did say the option would be the far more cost effective in terms of maintenance over the next 75 years compared to the other three options,

    “This alternate requires permanent (right of way) takes for property located beneath the bridge. These include local roads, parking lots, a part of a building and a portion of a boat yard. Both Matthews Street/Main Street and Cutler Street will no longer pass under Alpha Avenue and will be dead ended at the new embankment,” the report said.

    A permanent right-of-way take is a specific type of eminent domain in which the government acquires private property for public projects such as roads or railways. The government can use the land indefinitely but must compensate the landowner for it.

    Under state law, the Department of Transportation has the authority to acquire private property for public use.

    The report ultimately recommends the third, extensive repair option, which would repair or replace the substructure of the bridge, but would not replace the entire structure.

    In this $13.3 million plan, which includes pier replacement, girder strengthening and deck patching, the current deficiencies with the substructure of the viaduct would be addressed, any unseen deterioration would be repaired, and the life span of the bridge would be extended by 50 years. The analysis states that vehicular and train traffic would see only minimal disruption during the project.

    A second meeting of town and borough officials was held the first week of May to get input from Borough Fire Chief Jeff Hoadley and to apprise the newly-elected Schefers of the DOT’s plans.

    Chesebrough said the town has only been given preliminary narrative plans, and she is working to arrange another meeting with the DOT to include Schefers, who was not present at the first meeting.

    She said another meeting would offer local officials the opportunity to understand why the DOT had decided to replace rather than repair the span and to share with the DOT the town’s concerns about the project before the state puts more time and money into further developing it.

    “We just want to be able to sit down and have a deeper conversation to see if there is any opportunity from their perspective to really pursue the repair options, or if there are reasons for the replacement that can be shared and understood by the public. I think a better, deeper conversation at this point is kind of where we are,” she said.

    Schefers agreed.

    “We’ve got to get the stakeholders to meet with the appropriate parties to further discuss this, that’s the bottom line,” he said.

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