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July 22, 2019Cart

Business

by Fairfield County Business Journal
by FCBJ

Norwalk development going strong – but Walk Bridge still a thorn for some

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy listens to Mayor Harry Rilling and Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey describe economic development initiatives in Norwalk on April 15.

Norwalk’s modernization efforts are, according to Mayor Harry Rilling, continuing to make steady and positive progress.

At least if you don’t include the Walk Bridge.

Something of a perennial headache for officials and residents alike since at least 2014, the 123-year-old structure carries rail traffic on Metro-North’s New Haven Line as well as Amtrak service on the Northeast Corridor that serves passengers traveling between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. The need to replace it first became obvious about five years ago, when the swing-arm bridge failed to close twice, disrupting travel on the New Haven Line. A year later, plans were announced to begin construction on a new bridge in 2016, with a completion date of 2020.

But that work has yet to begin, mostly due to a host of complications. The project includes not just the Walk Bridge itself — price tag: $511 million — but also renovations to and/or replacement of several other bridges nearby, bringing the total cost to $1.2 billion.

“It’s been a long process,” Rilling told the Business Journal in December, “and there’s still quite some time to go.”

Plans currently call for Walk Bridge work to begin this fall. Completion is estimated to take three to five years.

“It’s taking a long time,” said Norwalk Communications Manager and Grants Coordinator Josh Morgan. “Right now it’s all about taking down power lines and improving the sightlines.”

The new Walk Bridge will also result in the razing and relocation of the nearby Maritime Aquarium’s IMAX theater. In 2018, an agreement was reached whereby the aquarium would have complete control of that work. Several iterations later, the city has taken over the project, including the administration of $34.5 million in state funds. Norwalk’s Common Council approved that agreement on Feb. 13 — two days after Maritime Aquarium President and CEO Maureen Hanley was “relieved” of her duties by its board of trustees, roughly three months after her hiring.

The episode has all the marks of a power struggle of some kind, but neither Hanley, the aquarium or the mayor’s office have officially commented.

Then came remarks made by Gov. Ned Lamont in response to a question about the “billion-dollar boondoggle bridge” following his speech before the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce in April. Lamont said he would “take a look” at the project, which many took as a sign that further delays could be in the works.

Not so, said Rilling. “As far as I’m aware, the project is moving forward,” he said. “I don’t think there have been any discussions about delaying it.”

Lamont has not publicly spoken about the Walk Bridge since the April event. Requests for comment from the governor did not receive a reply.

Conservation group Norwalk Harbor Keeper has filed a lawsuit over the matter, maintaining that a fixed bridge would be a better solution than another swing bridge. Lisa Brinton, an independent running for mayor this year, has said various alternatives — including simply repairing the existing Walk Bridge — should be considered.

Rilling remained adamant that a new bridge was the best choice, both from an economic and an environmental standpoint.

“This is not just about now, but a hundred years from now,” he said. “This is valuable, valuable property we’re talking about. There could be boutiques and other shops on the water, and I’m not going to preclude the future use of the waterway from the bridge north by future generations” by endorsing an alternative to the Walk Bridge replacement.

Another lawmaker interested in the Walk Bridge’s future is U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who took a bus tour with the mayor and members of his staff on April 15 to review a number of construction projects around the city.

“Like a lot of people, I wish it was going faster,” Murphy told the Business Journal. “But the federal funding (about 40% of its overall cost) is still there. There have been problems in the past where federal money that was promised didn’t show up, but that hasn’t happened here.”

The senator said part of the reason for taking the tour was to be better informed when it comes to future federal funding for projects in the city. “I got a helpful overview of all the different development projects happening, which will help me identify federal opportunities as we get into the budget and appropriations process,” Murphy said.

Rilling and Murphy visited the city’s Wall Street and West Avenue corridor; South Norwalk and the SoNo train station; the SoNo Collection; Soundview Landing, formerly Washington Village; and East Norwalk.

Soundview Landing has been a particular point of pride for Rilling. When work is done on what was the oldest public housing development in Connecticut, its 136 public housing units will have been replaced and 67 workforce housing units and 70 market-rate units added. Morgan said just one market-rate unit is still available.