Bypassing the red tape
CORNWALL — A bridge partially destroyed Aug. 28 during Tropical Storm Irene is presenting quite a challenge for the Board of Selectmen. Lower River Road remains closed to vehicular traffic after a footing was washed out by the flooded Mill Brook. Planks were used to cover a hole in the deck, allowing residents at four homes north of the bridge to bring their cars out. The only other access to that end of the dead-end road, which runs along the banks of the Housatonic River and is near the Covered Bridge, is an abandoned railroad crossing that will need significant upgrades to be usable.At the Aug. 6 meeting, the selectmen heard from engineer David Battista, who gave his assessment that the bridge is in danger of collapse. He said the immediate goal should be to shore up the span with a temporary repair to avoid losing the deck. Though a chunk of pavement fell through the deck, it is in good structural shape.The dilemma is the bridge is not big enough to handle potential flood waters. While the hurricane may have been a “100-year storm” at that location, Mill Brook has the distinction of draining a large, 5.7-square mile watershed. Bridges upstream have been rebuilt with expanded culverts, sending larger volumes of water rushing toward it on a regular basis.“I’m surprised it’s lasted this long,” Battista said.It survived floods in 1938 and 1955 because water and debris crested the brook’s banks farther upstream and flowed down Route 128 toward the Covered Bridge. Battista explained that the smaller bridge would be spared under most flood conditions because the Housatonic rises first, creating a backwater into Mill Brook that slows water rushing downhill on the other side of the bridge. While the bridge becomes totally submerged at times, it is the scouring effect of rushing water, debris and, in the most recent case, boulders that is most damaging.“In this case, the watershed reacted very quickly to all that rain and was the cause because the brook was flooded before the Housatonic came up,” Battista said.He estimated a new bridge would cost $200,000 to $400,000, and that it might be less costly to deal with regular repairs than a whole new bridge. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and Army Corps of Engineers have oversight there, but have backed off from local projects to allow towns to quickly recover from the disaster.“Both have issued proclamations to allow you to repair structures in kind without their red tape. They are mainly concerned with impacts. For instance, coffer dams will have to be built on each side of the bridge during construction and they will want to see what the temporary impacts would be.”First Selectman Gordon Ridgway said it could easily take a year to get design and permitting done for a new bridge. As for the rail crossing, it has steep grades on either side and would require some leveling and paving. There is a potential for the bridge work to be lengthy, and provisions need to be made for access for emergency vehicles, fuel trucks and other necessities for residents.All that said, the biggest obstacle right now is the water level that remains well above normal. As rain continued unabated last week, Battista planned to meet with contractor Blakeslee Construction in Torrington, brought in on an emergency basis (bypassing the bidding process) to work on a plan of action. But nothing is going to happen until water levels drop. Even then, large pumps will have to be used to remove groundwater. The brook will have to be diverted and new footings will have to be deeply anchored.“I think the best plan will be a quick, temporary solution that may give you at least a chance to save the deck, and give you ample years to get to the point of having been able to plan and save for a new bridge,” Battista said.