Amtrak Bridge: A Stimulus Candidate?

by Marcia Chambers | December 1, 2008 3:17 PM | | Comments (5)

DSC00422.JPGBranford First Selectman Unk DaRos is hopeful that the new state transportation commissioner will find a way to get done one of the oldest undone projects in the state — the Amtrak Bridge reconstruction. The hope now lies with a federal stimulus funding package that President-elect Barack Obama intends to send to Congress after he takes office Jan. 20.

Gov. Jodi Rell has asked relevant state agencies, including transportation, to give her a list of shovel-ready projects to be built if the state receives stimulus funding.

Judy Gott, the executive director of the South Central Regional Council of Governments, (SCRCOG), which oversees all federal transportation spending in a regional area including Branford, said the Amtrak bridge project is high up on the list. The project is now 14 years old.

“I do believe this project is among the top five for the state’s stimulus package. If we do get stimulus packages and I think it is inevitable because public works projects are the things that move the economy, this project may be the top one.”

There is consensus that the Amtrak bridge reconstruction depends upon the federal stimulus package. There is also agreement that since Amtrak is federally owned the project should be undertaken without state funds.

Joseph Marie, the state’s new transportation commissioner, who was appointed to the top post in April, held high-level Amtrak bridge meetings with congressional, regional and town officials at his Newington office last week. DaRos pressed to get the state to hold “to putting the project out to bid on Jan 28.”

The project was supposed to be put out to bid in July but was not. DaRos said that the Amtrak bridge renovation, which is crucial to the safety of citizens in the area known as “The Pretzel” as well as to commercial development, is fully designed.

“That is a rarity. This puts it at a higher level of acceptance. They won’t consider one that has not been designed and this one has been designed. There is $42 million already earmarked for this project,” DaRos said in an interview.

“This is a major thoroughfare for commerce and business and there are safety issues. If we had to do an evacuation of this town, how are we going to do it? We have four highways coming into one place, a place where trucks regularly hit this bridge.”

The funding for the reconstruction of the bridge has soared from $7 million in 1994 to $71 million in 2008.

One reason may be the amount of funds Amtrak demands for its work and monitoring force at construction sites. DaRos pointed out that Amtrak says the railroad track must be kept open for rail service during the new construction.

Besides DaRos, those attending the commissioner’s meeting included newly elected State Rep. Lonnie Reed, Judy Gott, representatives from U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro office and Senator Chris Dodd’s office and town officials.

If anybody knows the innards of the Amtrak project it is Gott, who was Branford’s first selectwoman in 1994 when the project began. She now heads the organization that has pressed state and federal officials to get the project underway. Amtrak is owned and operated by the federal government.

Gott’s South Central Council on Governments consists of staff plus the top elected officials from the shoreline’s Milford to Madison and from New Haven to Meriden — 15 mayors and first selectmen in all. They constitute the board.

All federal transportation money that Connecticut wishes to spend in this region must be approved by her board. For example, the new Q Bridge required this board’s approval.

Gott said without hesitation that Amtrak is responsible for the delays.

“My feeling is that Amtrak has been the biggest holdup in this whole project year after year after year. Every time there appears to be funding ready Amtrak has some other condition they want to put on it.

“The problem is Amtrak is just holding Connecticut hostage not just on this project but on other projects that we do as well. I know the Connecticut Department of Transportation has worked very hard to try to solve the issues but it seems every time we think we have it solved , Amtrak comes up with another condition.” The conditions are usually legally driven.

Gott said she thought the issues had been solved two years ago. “We thought we had it all solved back in 2006, but then the bids came in 2007 and they were not high enough. We only had $35 million in the budget and the bids came in at $42 million. So DOT [the State Department of Transportation], instead of trying to find additional money, said, ‘We will go out and rebid it again, try to revise it to bring the cost down.’ Now as they look at it they have re-estimated the job at $71 million.

“I have asked to review those figures. We need to review the $71 million estimate sheets and see why when the bid came in at $42 million or less a few years back, it has shot up so high. I want to know what is creating this new figure.”

Gott said Marie is well-versed on the issue. “He has been out to the site on his own. He knew about the Amtrak agreements. He knew all about the ‘force’ account costs. He was very well versed on it.” Force accounts are funds put in place for the manpower Amtrak says it will need to oversee the safety of the project.

In talking to her colleagues in other COG areas, Gott said, she has found that their Amtrak projects are also held up. “Anybody involved in Amtrak land seems to be held up.”

She said the next time Congress bails out Amtrak, which it always does, “there has to be some clause in there that says Amtrak will work for solutions with each state and not be at odds all the time.”

DaRos said he was impressed with the new commissioner’s command of the project and said DeLauro and Dodd are deeply committed to it. DaRos met with DeLauro after the DOT did not put the project out to bid in July as the agency said it would. “Everyone understands that this is a high priority for us regionally.”

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Posted by: Gil Kelman | December 2, 2008 9:07 AM

Another fine example of excellent journalism,thank you Marcia Chambers,

Posted by: Jay | December 2, 2008 9:15 AM

As I have observed before, this project is, far and away, the most needed transportation/development project in Branford. However, it is equally necessary to include the completion of the I-95 interchange at this location to a full interchange to both improve traffic flow and encourage development. The project should be finished before Q-bridge construction starts (although THAT doesn't seem to be happening any time soon). One other thought: while I do not doubt Amtrak's intransigence, one can just look around to see many other CTDOT projects which do not involve Amtrak, but are utter failures nonetheless. It is my sincere hope that Mr. Marie can change the negative, but perfectly deserved opinions that CT residents hold regarding the CTDOT.

Posted by: Wayne Cooke | December 2, 2008 1:54 PM

Although reconstruction of the underpass would be a step in the right direction, it's hardly the answer to Exit 53's problems. There is still the issue of making it aI full I-95 interchange--which means another $50-75 million towards the construction of a southbound bridge and reallignment of the connector. Not to mention the reconfiguration of the pretzel and major adjustments (widenings) to the curb cut-laden secondary arteries such as North Main Street, Main Street, West Main Street, and Short Beach Road.

It may all happen someday, but in the meantime Exit 56 is the place for retail development. Good column, Marcia.

Posted by: smartgrowth | December 2, 2008 4:44 PM

Once this bridge is replaced, the floodgates for retail development along Rte 1 will be open. Traffic will not "get better", there will just be more of it.

I hope they never replace the bridge. It's the best traffic calming device ever made. It forces people to slow down. It is the limiting factor on commercial development. And so far it has prevented Branford from becoming "anywhere, USA".

In regards to energy consumption, suburban sprawl, and the personality and individuality of the town, replacment of the bridge is a bad idea. And all this for a mere $71 million? Such a deal!!!

Let's spend the money on a transit sytem that works.

Posted by: Peter | December 2, 2008 6:09 PM

Smart Growth I'm sure is a lovely person but may wish for an IQ check up on this one. The "Hill" area is our first line of defense against future sprawl. Idea is to locate it, focus it, make it work better but not spread it to every available undeveloped site. Its been a retail center on the hill since before JM Fields and the Bowling Alley opened in the late 50's early sixties. Paradise paved 50 long years ago.

For all Amtrak has cost the US taxpayers maybe we should rip up the rails or tell'm to serve their
constituents, free the bridge, or lose their smart grwoth Fed. life blood money. Once and for all, dump'um. Get the Japanese in here to run these rails

Amtrak. The perfect example of a bailout project gone sour. Use that as your reason to let these companies fail. Fed money is addictive.

But a 15 year delay? Surprise answer from the pow wow. Finger pointing! Oh, it's Amtrak. The #1 Bailoutee. Oh! It's DOT. It's Fed Money. It's Town Hall. Let's wait for Obama. Come on.
Get it together. Get it done. Quit the blame game. This is our "Underpass to Everywhere".

Great update on what certainly is Branford's and the Shoreline's #1 US-1 bottleneck. DOT certainly needs to address all the changes proposed for X-53. X-53, the 1957 obsolete vestige from the don't let'm jump the 25 cent toll booth days, is now a one armed bandit that diverts and dumps unnecessary congestion onto an already over burdened US1. We should get'm on and get'm off, not send'm though the maze. It's greener,it's safer, it's easier and the reason for that existing limited one hand design is long gone.

Let's only hope that by putting this project onto the shovel ready DOT project list de jour for dippin' into that yet to be filled vat of Fed Economic Stimulus money (borrowed from China) doesn't create yet another set of govt. bureaucratic nightmares and delays. But enough on hope.

Why is this so hard to accomplish here in CT? In two years the price nearly doubles? Who's kidding who? Our DOT is a mess and haunts us everywhere in CT we look. Until it's fixed, CT will be behind the other 49(and the world) that knows how to get the jobs done. Done right and under budget. For starters, for once, officials, elected and otherwise, prove yourselves capable instead of let's just play finger point.

It's who's responsibiltiy that for 15 yrs we've been blaming Amtrak? Look in the mirror lest we finger point.

If you're picking up your govt. pay check and your full service medical perks (better than those paying your freight), I say to you, earn it, don't milk it, let's see some real action.

Call in the Swedes, call in Skanska to build this thing. Borrow the money from China. After the fall of Detroit we can drive our new Kia's and Hyundias underneath it. When we look to Govt to solve our problems, who then should we blame? Amtrak or ourselves?

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