The remains of the old Ponquogue Bridge, which had spanned Shinnecock Bay, connecting Hampton Bays to Dune Road, have been used as a fishing pier since a new bridge was built above them in 1987.
But the piers on both the north and south side of the span were seriously undermined by Hurricane Sandy, to the degree that the pier on the north side, which suffered a partial collapse during the storm, has been cordoned off to prevent fishermen from taking their life in their hands to go fishing.
But determined fishermen have been doing just that. As plans to repair the bridge have become mired in red tape due to the still-uncertain status of FEMA reimbursement for Sandy repairs, many have taken to fishing there anyway, despite the town’s attempt to keep them away.
Southampton Municipal Works Director Christine Fetten told the town board at a work session July 31 that the wooden piers holding up the old bridge are laced with shipworms, and she can’t guarantee there won’t be more collapses as the town waits to decide whether to repair the bridge.
Ms. Fetten said the town had initially received quotes of from $1.5 to $1.6 million to demolish the bridge and replace it with floating docks to be used as fishing piers.
“Part of the reason we haven’t gone ahead and done this work is the potential FEMA reimbursement,” said Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. “If we go ahead and do the work, it’s not reimbursable.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said the town is still waiting for word from FEMA on the status of financing for numerous post-Sandy projects.
“That money has not been forthcoming for this and many other things,” she said. “I just want the public to understand the distinction — we could go out and bond for this and raise taxes accordingly, but it is part of a long list of projects that have to be addressed in the aftermath of Sandy.”
The original Ponquogue Bridge was a drawbridge built in 1930. In 1976, its weight limit was restricted due to its deteriorating condition, said Ms. Fetten, and Suffolk County built the new bridge in 1987, after which they removed the drawbridge section and gave the remains of the old bridge to the town for use as a fishing pier.
Ms. Fetten said the “bridge abutments,” which are essentially the asphalt-covered road leading straight up to the bridge, are still salvageable, but the continuation of that asphalt road over the water on the wood pilings of the original bridge, should be removed.
But most fishermen prefer to fish from the bridge itself, which juts out farther into the fast-moving flow of water not far from the Shinnecock Inlet.
Until the town hears from FEMA, Ms. Fetten suggested the town install a chain-link fence blocking access to the bridge itself on both sides of Shinnecock Bay, and filling in the cracks in the asphalt on the bridge abutments with bluestone gravel.
“In my professional opinion, I do not believe the bridge structures are salvageable, nor should they be used, period,” she said.
She also suggested the town install signs in both English and Spanish warning fishermen not to try to fish from the bridge itself. A boat launch and diving platform on the bridge abutment on the south side would remain open for the public to use.
The whole project would cost $22.400, and wouldn’t disqualify the town from receiving FEMA funding for the eventual demolition of the old bridge.
“There would be no impact on FEMA funding for short term mitigation,” said Deputy Supervisor Francis Zappone. “We need to prepare a capital plan that’s manageable economically if we don’t get FEMA money, so at least we have a plan in place that can be supported by any future FEMA funding.”
The town is also looking into grants from the Coast Guard to address hazards to navigation.
In the audience at Thursday’s work session was Mary Reister, a young Hampton Bays student who’s been advocating for repairs to the bridge, and her mother, Stacey.
Stacey Reister said her family is most concerned at what an eyesore the bridge has become.
“We need to clean up the garbage going into the water,” she said. “It’s such a huge community that goes down there, and it’s really kind of gross.”
Councilman Stan Glinka said the Hampton Bays Beautification Association would like to plan a clean-up of the area.
“We need everyone to help out down there,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “We’ll keep working on it.”