Time, travel, limited resources take a toll on Merrimack Valley bridges | Haverhill

As soon as one bridge in Massachusetts gets fixed, another falls into disrepair.

“I’ve equated it to whack-a-mole,” said John Pourbaix, executive director of Construction Industries of Massachusetts.

That isn’t surprising, given that 4,898 of the state’s 5,245 bridges are estimated to need fixing to some degree, according to a “2022 Bridge Profile” published by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. The group estimates that it would take $16.7 billion to complete all of that work.

That is the reality that Governor Charlie Baker’s five-year, $9.7 billion infrastructure plan, which was announced in early 2022, is intended to address.

The initiative earmarks around $3 billion specifically for bridges, and uses $1.1 billion from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Joe Biden signed in 2021, along with funds from the state’s Next Generation Bridge Program.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with these monies we’re getting, and we have decades of deferred maintenance to catch up on,” said Kate Kahn of the Gray Media Group.

Under the governor’s plan, MassDOT has prioritized 186 bridges in the Commonwealth for repairs or replacement, and has initiated design or construction on 146 of those, a number of which are in Essex County.

Three are in Andover, and include one on Interstate 93 over the Merrimack River that will get $34,020,000 of preservation work that is set to begin in spring of 2025. The bridge was built in 1959 and is crossed 129,908 times daily, making it the busiest bridge in this local group.

Its date of construction is worth noting because bridges are supposed to be completely rebuilt every 50 years, Pourbaix said, and rehabilitated every 25 years, although that isn’t how things actually work.

“The state tries to do the best they can with the resources they’re given,” he said.

Another bridge in Andover, where Interstate 495 crosses both Route 28 and some train tracks, will be rehabilitated starting in spring 2023 for $168,350,000. Right near the line with Lawrence, it was built in 1963 and is crossed 113,400 times every day.

That project is actually described as six bridges, four of which stand where I-495 heads both east and west as it crosses over Route 28, after that road splits into two. Another two bridges are located where I-495 eastbound and westbound cross over the train tracks.

“The bridges are structurally deficient with deterioration throughout,” MassDOT stated in a handout for a hearing on the project. “None of the existing bridge superstructures or substructures are capable of carrying the current regulatory loads.”

Another project in Andover will begin construction in spring 2025, replacing a bridge where Tewksbury Street crosses the MBTA’s railroad tracks. This will cost $15,521,285, bringing the total projected spending on bridges in Andover to nearly $218 million.

Two bridge projects in Haverhill will also benefit from the increased funds, including the I-495 bridge replacement over the Merrimack River, which started in 2018 and was slated to be finished this spring for a final cost of $88,374,700. That bridge was built in 1962, and is crossed by 106,800 vehicles on average every day.

Replacement of Haverhill’s iconic Basiliere Bridge, which was built in 1925, will be moved up a year thanks to the federal funds, with construction now due to begin in the summer of 2024. That project has a price tag of $100,148,350.

A couple of smaller local projects will also benefit from the new initiative. These include a $2,688,620 replacement of the Short Street Bridge over the Spicket River in Lawrence, where construction is due to begin in the spring of 2026. In addition, a bridge where Route 213 crosses the Methuen Rail Trail is slated to be replaced starting in the spring of 2025 for $3,964,010.

“MassDOT abides by the Federal Highway guidance, and they inspect a bridge at least once every two years, and most of the time it’s on a rotating basis,” Pourbaix said. “If the bridge is somewhat in disrepair or they’re very concerned about it, they’ll increase the frequency to what they feel comfortable with. That could be every year.”

Sixty-two of the 392 bridges in Essex County are rated in poor condition in the Federal Highway Administration’s 2021 National Bridge Inventory, while 65 are rated fair and the rest are in good condition.

Under normal circumstances, Pourbaix said, the Federal Highway Administration generally pays 80% of any highway repairs, and the state pays 20%.

“To get into that agreement, the state has to adhere to federal regulation requirements,” he said. “They do some inspections on their own, and they also subcontract.”

The federal inspection criteria were tightened and standardized a few years ago, he said, and now require ratings from 1 to 10 for each of a bridge’s three major elements.

These are the deck where cars travel, the superstructure that supports the deck, and the substructure that holds everything up. If one of those elements is rated in poor condition, the whole bridge is classified as sub-standard.

But inspections also consider a bridge’s value in terms of where it is located, and what services rely on its use.

“They’ll strategically look at the usage of the bridge, the importance, the type of traffic that it takes, not only in numbers, but whether it is next to a fire department, a hospital,” Pourbaix said.

The state has launched previous initiatives to get a handle on the backlog of bridges that need attention, he said. But along with limitations to funding for these projects, the agency struggles with a lack of personnel who can manage them.

“Thirty years ago, MassDOT probably had 4,000 employees,” Pourbaix said. “There are around 2,000 or so now. What’s happened is, because the state doesn’t have the resources, there aren’t as many people getting into civil engineering.”

In an ideal world, there would be at least 100 replacements every year in a state with 5,000 bridges, he said, but he is encouraged by the governor’s new initiative.

“It’s a good first step,” Pourbaix said. “But this is an ongoing effort that has to continue every year.”

Karen J. Simmons

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