While closing down a bridge may seem like an inconvenience, it has opened the door to numerous possibilities for one New York County.
When the New York State Department of Transportation ordered Putnam County to close the Morningthorpe Avenue Bridge, the nearby village of Brewster and the town of Southeast not only found themselves minus a roadway, they lost a major pedestrian thoroughfare.
The Morningthorpe Avenue Bridge was built in 1894. It underwent major revitalization in 1960 and in 1987. By 2006, however, it was showing its age to the point where it was deemed unsafe for vehicular traffic.
“Our real concern since 2013 was that the bridge could collapse into the reservoir,” Putnam County legislator Joseph Castellano said in a press release.
“It had increasing yellow flags, and ultimately, a red flag stating it had no capacity to continue taking a load,” Putnam County Commissioner of Highways and Facilities Fred Pena said. “So, at that point, the bridge was closed.”
This was somewhat of a blow to the community, which lost not only a convenient walkway across the local reservoir, it lost a popular spot for fishing.
The county began looking at options, including removing the bridge and creating a new one for vehicular traffic; however, the cost would have been greater than the county was willing to pay.
“When we looked at the cost of replacing a vehicle bridge, it was in the $5 million to $6 million range, so there was really no funding available to replace it properly,” Pena said.
So, the county turned instead to the idea of building a new bridge specifically for pedestrian traffic. They discovered funding was available for walkways and bike paths and decided to investigate further.
“That would mean decommissioning an existing vehicle bridge,” Pena said.
As it turns out, this was not a problem. Downstream, the Railroad Avenue Bridge was serving as a crossing for motor vehicles.
“So the need for the Morningthorpe Avenue Bridge to stay a vehicle bridge was almost redundant,” Pena said.
The city’s website details the county obtained a $2.6 million federal grant through the Transportation Enhancement Program through NYSDOT and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council.
The funding was specifically available for creating pedestrian and bicycle paths.
“So at the time, we had these different things presenting themselves: the need for pedestrian use, the need for recreational use, grant money to support that type of project and the redundancy of this vehicle bridge that would allow us to decommission it without negatively impacting vehicle flow,” Pena said.
The county applied for and received the grant, which required a 20% match through local funding sources. This, Castellano said, ultimately saved taxpayers around $2 million.
Because the new bridge would affect their communities, representatives from Brewster and nearby Southeast attended meetings to discuss plans for the bridge. Several different ideas were proposed before the final design was approved.
“At one point, they talked about putting in a covered bridge, which wouldn’t allow for fishing,” Pena said. “But also, there were security issues, fire issues and cost issues.”
Discussion also centered around which entity or entities would be responsible for matching the grant.
“Ultimately, the county voted to take this on as a county project.”
The 100-foot bridge would be quite a bit longer than the original, which was only 72 feet long. This is due largely to state requirements.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the project was able to continue as planned with little delay.
“When the governor shut things down, anything relating to infrastructure was considered an essential project,” Project Manager Zenon Wojcik said.
Pena added the project was nearing completion by that time anyway.
“We just had minor punch list items at the time,” he said.
The bridge opened in fall 2020 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Officials from Brewster, the nearby town of Southeast and from Putnam County were all on hand to mark the occasion.
“Turning this 126-year-old bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle path is a great step forward,” County Executive MaryEllen Odell said via a press release. “It will help make our communities more walkable, provide healthy recreation opportunities and bring people to village parks, the Metro-North train station and Brewster’s Main Street shopping district.”
The Morningthorpe Avenue Bridge was just the beginning, however. The road on either side of the bridge was also closed to vehicles and converted to a pedestrian path.
“We are maintaining an intersection for pedestrian crossing on the Route 22 side,” Pena said. “We’re going to end it with Park Street and Railroad Avenue.”
Railroad Avenue, he added, was the original Morningthorpe road.
“It will be truncated at the intersection of Railroad and Park,” he said.
“Beyond that, Railroad Avenue will become a pedestrian road. Just south is a small park area for soccer and other sports. We think it really all came together nicely.”
While this was largely a county project, it fits neatly with Brewster’s own planning.
“The village of Brewster is planning quite a bit of downtown revitalization,” Wojcik said. “It kind of ties in with that. They would like to make it more of a walkable community. Southeast and Brewster were happy to see that we did this improvement.”
Pena commented on the convenience the new bridge has already brought locally.
“The village is looking for revitalization,” he said. “They’re moving toward revitalization. So, part of the project will include sidewalk sections that connect to the Metro North Railroad from the existing sidewalk system and the village center.”
Wojcik added at the same time the county was planning the bridge, the state of New York was repaving Route 22, which runs adjacent to the bridge.
“And then the village decided to pave the local street, so it may have been the spark to get things started,” he said.
At this time, the county does not keep track of usage for the new Morningthorpe Avenue Bridge, but word of mouth does get around.
“Certainly, there is a lot of evidence of commuters,” Pena said. “And I think that may be something we could look into in the future, improving pedestrian accessibility into the surrounding communities to get to Metro North.”
Wojcik added a county executive has heard a local group was going to decorate the bridge for the holidays.
This is not the first time transportation infrastructure has been put to new use in the state of New York.
“Prior to this, municipalities were taking abandoned rail lines and converting them for recreational uses, which were fairly active,” Pena said. “We (Putnam County) had a pretty robust system — about 12 miles of rail lines that were converted into these pedestrian multiuse paths. They were very well received.”
Miles of trails and pathways run throughout New York. The Empire State Trail connects New York City to Canada, and another system runs to Connecticut. “It’s a great recreational system and facility that allows almost every member of the community to enjoy some fresh air and some really scenic opportunities,” Pena said.