Mar 11, 2014
Kevin Spacey, 'House of Cards' and How a Bridge Over Long Island Sound Almost Became a Reality
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Actor Kevin Spacey arrives at the special screening of Netflix's 'House of Cards' Season 2 at the Directors Guild of America on Feb. 13, 2014 in Los Angeles.
The writers of “House of Cards” might be onto something.
In Season 2 of the hit Netflix series, a proposal for a bridge across Long Island Sound comes up again and again. The fictional project calls for a bridge from Port Jefferson, N.Y., to Milford, Conn., and the idea is at the center of the jobs growth plan put forth on the show by Vice President Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill).
During the course of the season, which was released in its entirety on Netflix Streaming in February, Underwood uses the contract for the bridge as a bargaining chip in order to consolidate his own power and influence.
Some have criticized the show for unrealistic plot lines, and at first glance a bridge over Long Island Sound seems as unlikely as anything in the show’s second season. However, a bridge over the Sound is not all that far-fetched, and in fact, just such a project very nearly became a reality.
During the '60s and '70s, plans for a bridge that would have linked Bridgeport, Groton, Old Saybrook or another town to Long Island had serious traction. The idea generated public hearings in Connecticut and New York and was championed by a succession of New York power brokers, including New York governors Nelson Rockefeller and Hugh Carey, and famed New York builder Robert Moses, a New Haven native who helped plan projects such as New York City’s Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (previously the Triborough Bridge).
Far from a flight of fancy, the idea for a bridge over the Sound was a serious proposal that was viewed as entirely feasible from an engineering standpoint. The concept’s feasibility was demonstrated in April 1964 when the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was opened. Built over a three and a half year period, it cost $200 million and the lives of six workers, and connects the Delmarva Peninsula with Virginia Beach. (Above a map of all the suggested bridges over Long Island Sound from a Wikipedia post on the 'Long Island Sound link'.)
Supporters of the bridge in New York used the slogan “a bridge is a Sound idea,” but as far as many in Connecticut were concerned, the plan didn’t hold water.
The last major push for the project took place in 1979 when New York Governor Carey proposed a tri-state advisory committee to review proposals for a bridge across the Sound. The committee looked at a possible routes for the bridge, one from East Marion, N.Y., to Old Saybrook (which would have been about 8 miles), and a longer route from Riverhead, N.Y., to Guilford.
“There was a very sincere and ambitious proposal to build a bridge,” recalls Barbara Maynard, who was first selectwoman of Old Saybrook at the time.
If built, it would have been a bridge over troubled waters, or at least troubled townspeople.
“There wasn't much enthusiasm on this end I’ll tell you,” Maynard says. “It would have really wrecked our town. We have miles of coastline and pristine beaches and that would have completely changed the whole environment around us.”
Maynard and others in Old Saybrook rallied against the plan. As a result of this resistance, as well as economic concerns, the concept was dropped.
But Maynard wasn’t the first Connecticut politician to battle plans for a bridge across the Sound.
The idea of a bridge across the Sound was explored as early as 1957 by the Montauk Beach Company. In 1963 a private organization called the Long Island Sound Tri-State Bridge Committee formed. This committee proposed a 23.8-mile bridge that would have started at Orient Point in Long Island then branched into separate spans; one would have gone to Groton, the other to Watch Hill, R.I.
Later variations of the proposal included an underwater tunnel connecting Orient Point with East Lyme (though some questioned the feasibility of this idea because of the lack of uniform depth at the bottom of the Sound). The biggest push for the bridge began in 1966 when Governor Rockefeller began seriously looking into the project. Rockefeller’s efforts eventually focused on two possible routes for the bridge, a 15-mile span from Port Jefferson to Bridgeport, or a 10-mile bridge from East Marion to Old Saybrook.
One of the project's most vocal critics was Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who, along with U.S. Rep Stewart McKinney, attempted to block federal funding for future studies related to the bridge.
In 1969, in this Connecticut Magazine's July/August issue, Ribicoff mentioned the bridge project in an editorial entitled “What About Long Island Sound.” In the piece he railed against the project and other proposed developments along the shores of the Sound.
“Planners are considering the construction of a massive highway bridge spanning the sound—a project which could blight efforts to preserve a scenic and untouched open space,” Ribicoff wrote.
Elsewhere in the editorial, he warned that the bridge and other projects could destroy the Sound as a natural resource, at one point dramatically proclaiming, “The question that faces us is whether in the midst of this growth and expansion, Long Island Sound will be a pleasant scenic oasis, or a dark and stagnant cesspool.”
Grant Westerson, president of Connecticut Marine Trades Association in Essex, who lives in Old Saybrook, says that the bridge would have been convenient but would have ruined whatever Connecticut town it was connected with. But he can see why some found the concept appealing. (Above, Brewster Jennings of Locust Valley, N.Y., takes advtange of the surf by sailboarding in the Long Island Sound on Oct. 28, 2012. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.)
“Would it have been nice to have a bridge? Sure. But on the other hand maybe I wouldn’t live in Old Saybrook because it would have changed the town,” he says.
He adds that he’s always been more receptive to the tunnel concept.
"A tunnel going out there would be wonderful. The tunnel idea [used to be] bandied about but tunnels are very expensive, much more expensive than a bridge."
Westerson says that in addition to opposition from local residents on the Connecticut shoreline, the bridge idea stopped being talked about because, though possible, it would have been tremendously expensive. In addition to the bridge being long, support structures would have to be built deep under water.
"You’re not going across a 20 foot deep pond,” Westerson says. “There’s spots that are in excess of 100 feet.”
As appealing as a tunnel or bridge might sound to those of us with relatives on Long Island, unlike in “House of Cards,” you probably won’t hear a politician sounding anytime soon about how a bridge over Long Island Sound will stimulate job growth.