My Turn: Slow down: Bridge review regulations make sense
I was surprised to see from the July 7 editorial on the Sewalls Falls bridge that the Monitor has joined the Tea Party in calling for the end of federal environmental and historic regulations on federal projects.
Surely someone should have realized that changing the plan from preserving an historic structure to removing it would require an updated review, just as if the plan had changed from a highway going around a swamp to going through it. Various groups have complained for years about the delays and costs of these reviews, but until now the Monitor has always favored the regulations.
The situation is made worse by the city’s failure to meet its own deadlines for submitting documents, presumably due to a combination of unfamiliarity with the process and city staff being tied down with the Main Street project.
At the April meeting with state and federal officials, the city’s documentation was ruled incomplete, but it was agreed that the bridge would be the last item on the May agenda so the discussion could continue as long as necessary then.
The city, however, chose to skip the May meeting and for the June meeting submitted a document that was found inadequate by the state historic preservation office. The city promised to improve it for the July meeting but ultimately chose to skip that meeting also and submit it for August. It seems a bit lame for the Monitor to criticize the feds for failing to approve a document they haven’t even received yet.
At the original public meeting on the bridge, residents made it clear that they wanted the old bridge preserved and they wanted the road open during construction. A two-bridge solution was found that handled both.
Bridge engineers I knew reacted with: “Can they really do that?” I told the city council at the time that it would be a real money pit that would wind up like the General Sullivan Bridge on Route 4 in Dover-Newington, with the old span eventually closed and a second new bridge built. But, of course, the city council approved the plan, despite the higher cost.
Note that the city council has not held any hearings on the bridge this year – just an informational meeting that few councilors attended – so if “The public has weighed in,” its last official testimony was several years ago to preserve the bridge.
The story the public has been told is that “the repairs to the existing bridge would cost more than expected.” If that is really true, maybe the wrong consultant was hired. It should have been obvious from the beginning that the entire lower part of the bridge needed to be replaced due to rust damage and to carry higher loads.
Similarly, the bent vertical members are out in the open where anyone can see them. The major change actually seems to be that someone has now decided that the bridge needs to be designed for over-legal-height trucks so most of the upper members need to be replaced also. I’ll bet most residents of the area would prefer that oversized trucks use the bridge at Exit 17 instead – if for some reason a permit load needs to cross the bridge, the pilot car can stop traffic so the truck can use the new span.
James Garvin, the former state architectural historian, believes federal law requires the bridge to be preserved if possible regardless of cost – it’s certainly technically feasible to update it, so now the lawyers need to rule.
My feeling is that the necessary repairs would make the bridge less appealing to students of economic history. So rather than being preserved in situ, it should be set up in a park on the bank so tourists and engineering students could observe the way things were built a century ago.
As it wouldn’t need to carry loads and it couldn’t collapse into the river, the existing members could be retained. This simple park wouldn’t need any $4,200 trash cans, and moving the bridge there could be financed through the percent-for-history program.
(Roy Schweiker lives in