S panning the Quinnipiac River, New Haven’s Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge—commonly known as the Q Bridge—is transportation in transition. Since 1958, built as part of President Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act, it’s led travelers to and from New Haven. For commuters, it’s been their way to a livelihood, and their way home after a long day at work.
Now it’s in the process of being dismantled and replaced, flanked by cranes. Large-scale construction today means the Q will pay dividends well into the future, turning what was once a six-lane raised highway into a ten-lane work of novel architecture.
While most can probably agree the new design looks much nicer than the old (and aging) causeway structure, most of us probably haven’t yet learned of its architectural significance. Though only its northbound route is currently open for traffic—with completion slated for next year—the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge is the first “extradosed” bridge in the nation, meaning it’s supported by both a continuous undergirding deck below and cables rising above.
The bridge is part of the “I-95 New Haven Harbor Crossing Corridor Improvement Program,” which is also enhancing stretches of highway on either side—7.2 miles from Exit 46 to Exit 54, all in all.
Karyn Gilvarg, Executive Director of New Haven’s City Plan Department, says the program traces back to the mid-eighties. The bridge was overdue for an evaluation, and then it got one. “It needed some work,” she says; the bridge wasn’t earthquake-ready, for one thing. For another, heavy usage meant plentiful traffic complaints that only more capacity on and around the bridge could solve. It was clear: the city needed a new Q.
Just as clearly, it’s taken a while to get from there to here. But that’s because the project is massive and complex, incorporating environmental studies, public input and more than the usual design challenges. The bridge’s situation in Tweed Airport’s flight path, for instance, affects the maximum height of the new construction.
The Corridor Improvement Program is funded mostly by the federal government—87 percent of it, with the rest covered by the state—because the bridge carries a sufficient level of interstate traffic. Despite those facts, the city has been heavily involved. In 2001 it was Mayor John DeStefano Jr. who, in light of the bridge project, committed to a number of other related infrastructure projects in the area, including the construction of State Street Station. And it was Gilvarg who, looking for help designing the new Q, approached the American Institute of Architects, which put a committee together for the task.
This is where Brian Mercure comes in. He’s the Assistant District Engineer for the state DOT’s District 3A Construction Office on Chapel Street, a.k.a. the I-95 New Haven Program Management Office, the heart and soul of this whole operation. That’s right: the Q Bridge and associated highway improvement program is so big it has its own office.
Mercure talks about the bridge with an infectious passion. His office is holding an open house in April, and it regularly gives presentations to interested parties, from private architecture groups to eighth-grade classrooms. The project website hosts interactive maps, an incredibly thorough FAQ section and a list of all the surprising ways the team is working with the community.
The presentations often include tours, although Mercure says colder weather means tours will probably be curtailed for now until the spring. Before the new bridge was carrying traffic, presenters would take visitors up there to see the sights, but now tours focus on the construction site below.
“It’s a joy of ours,” says Mercure of the tours, adding that he hopes he sways some young minds towards a career in bridge engineering. “We get to brag.”
Written by Cara McDonough. Photograph courtesy of the District 3A Construction Office of the Connecticut Department of Transportation.