Overcoming inertia

Last weekend, two bridges, each weighing 2 million pounds and carrying 6 lanes of I-84 traffic over Marion Avenue in Southington, were replaced using an innovative technique called Accelerated Bridge Construction. In one weekend. This was accomplished by building the replacement bridges near the site of the existing bridges and moving them into place with gigantic transports. Check out the time-lapse video on the Record-Journal website for a fascinating look at how this was done — in two days.

Let’s compare that feat with the replacement of the 30-foot-long, 2-lane-wide Center Street bridge near Vinny’s Deli here in Wallingford. The State of Connecticut DOT estimates that this project is going to take three years and cost $3.9 million. Three years of snarled traffic, crippling business losses for the several stores located adjacent to the bridge, and chaos for the 10,400 vehicles that daily cross this bridge.

How can this possibly be? Are the ConnDOT engineers who replaced the enormous bridges in Southington with minimal public inconvenience from a different century than those in charge of replacing the little bridge in Wallingford, engineers who have determined that three years of construction disarray located three-tenths of a mile from the center of town is acceptable?

To get the answer to that question and so many others arising from a June 12th R-J article on the subject, I sat with Town Engineer John Thompson. What I learned from him would be enough for a half dozen columns, but let me mention three points for now.

First of all, part of the complexity in this project is that the bridge or the area surrounding it has gas lines, water lines, phone lines, and sewer lines running through it. Add to that the overhead electric lines, as well as the main feeder electric cable to Choate running next to Wharton Brook.

Every one of these critical infrastructure elements will have to be dealt with. Now we begin to understand why planning this project has been going on since 2007. The state estimates that this utility work alone will take an entire year to complete.

Secondly, ConnDOT’s philosophy appears to be — and this is my assumption, not John’s — to take the path of least resistance (i.e., what is easiest for them) and let the affected town make objections. For instance, the state’s first bright idea was to route all traffic down South Elm to Wall Street to Simpson Avenue so that they could work unimpeded for three years. All 10,400 vehicles a day, including hundreds of tractor-trailer trucks, motoring down narrow residential streets. The Town naturally thought this was a ludicrous idea, so the state then suggested running all the traffic down Christian Street right through Choate. Again the Town said, in so many words, “What? Are you nuts?” So now, with construction set to begin within a few months, ConnDOT is saying, “Hmmm. I think we need a traffic study. There’s more to this traffic thing than we figured.”

Thirdly, it is obvious that ConnDOT is not considering any kind of advanced construction techniques that would shorten the time this project will be raising havoc. ConnDOT says the project is to “replace the structure using current design standards.” Okay, fine. But how about using some 21st century construction techniques as well, not only saving time but quite possibly money, at least according to the construction manager of the Southington project, who suggested that such methods as his company employed “can cut costs by half and avoid months or even years of roadwork and accompanying traffic delays” (Record-Journal website, July 2).

Stay tuned. The project plan is, hopefully, far from set. It appears that the Town of Wallingford is going to have to push as hard as it can to overcome the inertia that plagues the Connecticut Department of Transportation. We saw firsthand that ConnDOT can be innovative. The question is: will they be?

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.



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