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Time for bridge building in New London

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published August 14. 2013 4:00AM

I heard some interesting ideas after suggesting recently that New London might want to focus on the recommendation of the Yale Urban Design Workshop that there be a bridge linking the Fort Trumbull peninsula with downtown.

The issue is bridging the narrow boat channel into a marina basin, the missing link in what could otherwise be a continuous waterfront walkway, from the train station downtown to the magnificent Fort Trumbull state park.

Adding some weight to the recommendation from the Yale designers are the unfolding plans for a new National Coast Guard Museum downtown.

It seems like there will never be a better time to leverage the attention being paid to the museum, by local, state and federal office holders, into a proposal for making the bridge happen soon.

Surely, a link to the downtown would help unlock the development potential of the open space on the Fort Trumbull peninsula, as well as make the city experience better for museumgoers.

One idea floated by the Yale designers is to piggyback a pedestrian bridge onto the existing Amtrak swing bridge that crosses the small boat channel.

Some of the negative feedback I heard about this idea is some of the same old defeatism that dogs the city: Amtrak will never allow it to happen, no matter how much political pressure is brought to bear.

Actually, I didn't have to search long to find a bridge that carries pedestrians, cars and Amtrak trains. The Steel Bridge in Portland, Ore., is multi-modal and old. It was built in 1912.

Surely in 2013 Amtrak can find a way to safely add a walkway to its New London bridge.

One idea I heard floated is to build a smaller, separate bridge for pedestrians and link it to the Amtrak bridge, so that when the operator swings the Amtrak bridge open, the pedestrian bridge goes with it.

Oklahoma City plans to build an amazing 380-foot-long pedestrian bridge, with an iconic 197-foot-tall sculpture, a scissor-tailed flycatcher, for $5.8 million, more than half of it covered by state transportation funds. It will be in the heart of a downtown park and will light up at night, in different colors.

A New London bridge wouldn't be as big or grand and wouldn't cost as much.

Others mentioned that, in the summer, the Amtrak bridge tends to stay open for boats until a train is coming. That might have to change. After all, boaters on the Mystic River wait for a bridge opening every hour. That wouldn't seem like so daunting a schedule for those who moor their boats inside a railroad bridge.

Other suggested a water ferry or taxi system, which could eventually link not only the park and museum but also the Electric Boat office towers on the peninsula. There could even be a downtown water taxi stop in Groton.

I think a water taxi or ferry is a great idea if it is in addition to fixed infrastructure that will permanently link Fort Trumbull and downtown, with no daily operating budgets or drivers needed.

The link should be permanent and fixed if the idea is to attract new development at Fort Trumbull.

Frank McLaughlin, chairman of the city's Economic Development Commission and project manager for the Renaissance City Development Association, offered some feedback last week to the City Council on the idea of building a bridge.

McLaughlin said the Economic Development Commission has been discussing the topic and is determined not to let the suggestions of the Yale designers sit on a shelf gathering dust.

It seems like getting the planning for a bridge underway would be a good mandate for Renaissance City, now that it has been reconstituted, replacing the New London Development Corp., which famously took the homes of Fort Trumbull by eminent domain and bulldozed the peninsula. It would be a perfect way to lay the groundwork for luring some interesting new development.

They need to develop some designs, price them out and identify the federal and state funding that might help make it happen. They might make a stab at some of the $20 million in state funding promised for museum-related infrastructure.

And hurry, while the mayor, governor and Connecticut's senators are all keen on making the Coast Guard Museum happen and finding funding.

Now is the time to piggyback a bridge on the momentum of the museum project.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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