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State’s push on bridges now boosting local projects

Scenes from last month show crews sinking footings into the Merrimack River to support a replacement for the Bates Bridge, which carries Route 97 between Groveland and Haverhill. Scenes from last month show crews sinking footings into the Merrimack River to support a replacement for the Bates Bridge, which carries Route 97 between Groveland and Haverhill. (Photos by Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe)
By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2012
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The sight of construction crews at the Bates Bridge over the Merrimack River may have Route 97 commuters feeling optimistic, even if the project isn’t scheduled for completion until 2014.

“Work is progressing,’’ said Tony Komornick, the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission’s transportation program manager. “They put the footings in for the new bridge, have done the utility relocation work, and things are moving forward.’’

Rebuilding older bridges has long been an issue in Massachusetts, where many of the more than 5,000 bridges have gone beyond their projected life. An award-winning state Department of Transportation program is aggressively addressing the problem.

The Bates Bridge, which connects Groveland and Haverhill over the river, is a typical story. The bridge replacement project was supposed to go to bid in 2004. Groveland renovated the nearby town center’s Elm Park in anticipation of its completion. But various issues delayed the bridge project, and construction didn’t begin until late 2010.

“We’ve had horrific’’ traffic backups while the bridge has undergone various repairs,’’ said Groveland’s finance director, Greg Labrecque. “We’re obviously looking forward to having a nice, modern bridge to go with the changes we’ve made in the last few years. It will certainly improve the appearance of that area of town.’’

In 2008, the state launched its Accelerated Bridges Program, earmarking $3 billion over an eight-year period to repair or replace bridges that were structurally deficient or had other problems.

Between that and the approximately $150 million spent each year through the Transportation Department’s statewide road and bridge program (which is funding the Bates Bridge replacement), there are more projects moving more quickly.

The effort’s local reach is illustrated by three area projects that are in the design phase: the Woods Memorial Drawbridge over the Malden River in Everett and Medford; the Howley Street Bridge over the North River in Peabody; and the Rocks Village Bridge over the Merrimack River, connecting West Newbury and Haverhill.

The funding “will allow us to address 206 additional bridges that we wouldn’t have been able to get to through our standard program,’’ said Frank DePaola, administrator of the transportation agency’s highway division. In 2009, the state spent $91 million on additional projects. The figure jumped to $207 million in 2010 and $309 million last year.

Five major projects on the list include the $285 million replacement of Interstate 95’s Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River between Newburyport, Amesbury, and Salisbury. The state plans to advertise for construction proposals by August.

Of the 206 additional bridges, DePaola said, 72 projects were completed, 66 are in construction, 25 are set to go out to bid by the end of this fiscal year, and 43 will be in the design phase.

When a bridge needs to be closed down for safety reasons, it creates more than an inconvenience.

“Number one it’s a safety issue, but if you do have to close a bridge it becomes an economic development issue,’’ said Eric Bourassa, transportation manager for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a planning agency that assists 101 cities and towns across the region.

“You have to reroute trucks, and that can have a big impact on regional traffic flow and even economic development, because some businesses can’t get good access,’’ he said.

In addition to speeding up bridge repairs, the program has created jobs and drawn accolades for a creative financing plan that last year won the national Deal of the Year award from the Bond Buyer, an industry publication. The plan involved three transactions in 2010, including a bond refinancing that reduced the state’s borrowing costs by some $11 million.

Overall, the transactions generated at least $676 million to finance the bridge repair effort, and one received AAA ratings from both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service, the first such rating in the state’s history.

The competitive construction market has “helped us squeeze these dollars even more,’’ DePaola said.

With so many bridges reaching the end of their projected lives, however, the program will just make a dent in the issue. In 2008, the number of structurally deficient bridges was 507, roughly 10 percent of the state’s total.

“If you check the legislation, the goal was to drop the number of structurally deficient bridges to 450,’’ DePaola said. At the end of November, the state had reached that number, “but as each year goes by, more of the 5,000 get older.’’

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