It was a lovely sunny day yesterday, perfect for a stroll on the Niantic Bay Boardwalk. But though the newly rebuilt Amtrak half is rock solid, the gravel side that East Lyme constructed to meet it halfway is more like a moon walk than a boardwalk these days.
Congressman Joe Courtney (D-2nd District) took a tour to see the damage first hand yesterday with East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica. The town's directors of public works and parks and recreation, the fire marshall, and the resident state trooper were also on hand to point out different areas they felt needed to be addressed as they clambered over the rocks and debris that once made up the boardwalk.
The Amtrak section of the boardwalk was built to withstand a 100-year storm. Aside from the fact that the stairs leading to the beach are now half buried in sand, you'd hardly know that the aptly named Superstorm Sandy hit at all. The town's section of the boardwalk, however, is a different story.
Tropical Storm Irene dealt the first blow, washing away enough portions of the pathway to render it unusable this past summer but Sandy dealt the final blow with a storm surge that wiped it out nearly entirely.
The cloth that served as a base now lies bundled and twisted in heaps like washing after a spin cycle. Rocks that once formed a barricade between train tracks and the boardwalk are now strewn along the beach and rusted metal rebar juts out from between the rocks, posing a hazard to any wayward hiker. It's not for nothing that the pathway is gated off at the Hole in the Wall Beach entrance and posted with a large no access sign.
The fence that separated the tracks from the boardwalk unfurls away from its posts, about as useful as a lace curtain would be to keep people off the tracks. In the places where it remains intact, it serves as a measuring stick for how much of the boardwalk was ripped away by Sandy. The bottom of the fence is now a foot above ground level.
"It really shows how badly this town got belted," said Courtney. "That it recovered so soon really says a lot about the local leadership and first responders."
The Benefits of a Joint Operation
The Niantic side of the boardwalk is technically the town's responsibility but First Selectman Paul Formica is hoping that Amtrak may be persuaded to join the town in its rebuilding efforts and is making a case for joint cooperation.
In a memo to Amtrak, Formica pointed out that the boardwalk had helped protect the tracks from storms. After Sandy ripped out sections of the boardwalk, the revetment—the rock-faced embankment extending up from the boardwalk to the tracks—has been compromised.
That poses a safety hazard for people walking along the beach below because the rocks are loose and it leaves the tracks more vulnerable to future storm damage.
"It seems safe now but what would happen if we get another storm?" said Formica.
In terms of rebuilding, Formica argues, one project cannot be completed unless both parties work together. In his pitch to Amtrak, Formica points out "the boardwalk cannot be constructed because the Amtrak revetment is in danger of collapsing and vibrations and the nature of heavy construction could undermine the tracks."
And on the flipside, he notes, "The Amtrak revetment cannot be repaired by the traditional side-dump method because the revetment would roll over onto town property and prevent proper reconstruction of the boardwalk."
By working collaboratively with the town, Formica argues, Amtrak would be able to reconstruct the revetment more precisely. Furthermore, a reconstructed boardwalk would offer more storm protection for the tracks, reducing the amount of revetment required to protect the rail line. By working together, both Amtrak and the town would also benefit from economies of scale to keep costs down.
"The town of East Lyme has every intention of rebuilding an improved Boardwalk to withstand a 100-year storm event and Amtrak is responsible to provide storm protection to the Northeast Corridor," the memo to Amtrak reads. "The proximity of these two repair projects has resulted in a situation that will require the town of East Lyme and Amtrak to work together to best solve these problems."
Courtney agrees and said he will use his influence to urge the railroad to work collaboratively with the town. "I'm going to sit down with Amtrak and follow up," said Courtney. "It's in Amtrak's best interest."
The good news is the town probably won't have to shell out much to rebuild the boardwalk, with or without Amtrak. East Lyme already has money coming from both the insurance and FEMA for the damage done by Irene, although there's still some back and forth over how much money that will be. Meanwhile, the town has also submitted an application for FEMA assistance to repair the damage done by Sandy, and that claim is very likely to be approved.
The board of selectmen are pretty optimistic that the finished product will be better than ever and, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, at least some section of the boardwalk should be open by the start of the summer season. That's the plan anyhow.