Despite pushback, New Milford moving ahead with two-lane bridge plan on Cherniske Road

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

NEW MILFORD — After months of heated debate and pushback from residents, New Milford is moving ahead with plans for a two-lane bridge on Cherniske Road.

The Town Council, by a 6-to-3 vote, authorized design work to be completed toward widening the bridge for two lanes on the scenic road.

Some residents, however, continue to say if the town moves forward with a two-lane bridge design, then the town would be violating the town’s scenic road ordinance. They’ve also said the town’s policies were not followed in regard to the building of a temporary bridge for the road.

The one-lane bridge, which is west of the intersection with Sawyer Hill Road and Cherniske Road, has has been closed since January 2021, due to its poor condition.

While the town could put $600,000 in federal funds toward the bridge, a two-lane bridge, which costs about $1.6 million, would qualify for a 50 percent state grant, bringing the total cost to $230,000.

A single lane bridge would cost the town $830,000.

The state will not reimburse for a one-lane bridge, saying it’s functionally obsolete. Jack Healy, the town’s public works director, said the only way the Department of Transportation would consider giving grant money for a one-lane bridge is for travel by less than 100 cars a day on the road. He said several hundred cars per day are on that bridge, according to the Department of Transportation website, traffic monitoring and count data.

In letters to the town and Hearst Connecticut Media and at Town Council meetings, residents have said a two-lane bridge violates the town’s scenic road ordinance.

The ordinance says that no alterations of a scenic road can be made unless the Town Council determines they’re necessary to maintain the road in good repair and in passable condition.

While a two-lane bridge would constitute an alteration of the bridge since it would be widened, Mayor Pete Bass said last year the Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers implemented new design guidelines for bridges.

“So if it’s a design that’s going to be required, then that supersedes the scenic road ordinance,” he said.

Residents said Cherniske Road lacks a scenic road committee. Since the bridge is on a scenic road, according to the ordinance, a scenic road committee would have to be formed.

Town attorney Randy DiBella said a scenic road committee is formed only after a decision is made on the bridge design.

Some Town Council members asked if the scenic road committee decide on bridge specifics, such as a one- or two-lane bridge.

DiBella said no — the scenic road committee is not an engineering committee.

“It’s an aesthetics and beautification entity and a preservation of the scenic road condition,” said DiBella, adding the committee would be appointed by the mayor.

The scenic road ordinance states alterations to a scenic road should not be made as to unnecessarily encourage increased speed. Some residents and Town Council members were concerned about the increased speed cars might go if there is a two-lane bridge on that road.

Council member Mary Jane Lundgren said, “It’s already pretty crazy before the bridge went out. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like after a two-lane bridge is in there and then obviously it’s going to be a safety issue.”

Healy said he’s working with Army Corps of Engineers, DOT and DEEP on the issue.

Putting speed bumps or humps on the bridge was suggested, as well a no-through truck ordinance, but those are not allowed, Healy said.

In regard to residents’ concerns about reducing truck traffic and reduce speeds on the bridge, Bass said the town is working with the state Traffic Authority and neighboring towns to find a solution. He’s expected to speak about an ordinance prohibiting heavy vehicles from crossing Cherniske Road at Monday’s Town Council meeting.

Temporary bridge

In March, after the town received letters from emergency responders for a temporary solution to allow emergency vehicles to access the area, the town authorized public works to start a temporary bridge.

A temporary bridge, which costs $213,000, has been ordered.

Some residents and Town Council members were upset that the approval for the temporary bridge was not listed on the agenda for that meeting and therefore they didn’t get a chance research option for such a bridge ahead of time — in terms of quality and cost.

Other council members said the town’s public works department and engineers should be trusted to do their job accurately.

Bass said the temporary bridge that was chosen can be stored in town and reused where needed.

“The thought process for Jack and the engineering team is once the permanent bridge is done at Cherniske, we then can take the (temporary bridge) and use that for a bunch of other bridge projects that may need a temporary bridge,” Bass said. “We have 62 bridges in New Milford, once the Cherniske one is completed, we could then use that other one in the later years.”

Next steps

Once the engineer brings the design of the bridge to public works, which Bass said will take about two or three weeks, the Town Council will set up a scenic road committee.

The state application for the grant for the permanent bridge is May 31. Construction is expected to take place in 2023.