Tobin inspection stepped up

Metal, concrete bits fall from underside

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / August 9, 2007

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Shards of rusty metal and chunks of concrete have been raining down from the Tobin Bridge in recent weeks, damaging boats at the Chelsea Yacht Club 125 feet below and prompting the Massachusetts Port Authority yesterday to accelerate inspections of the hulking structure over the Mystic River.

No one has been hit by the debris, but there have been several close calls recently, according to club members. Last month, a softball-sized hunk of concrete smashed into the windshield of a 25-foot boat, just moments after three men stepped off the craft, according to Dan French, the boat's owner.

"If we were on that boat, we would have probably been hit," said French, 49, of Londonderry, N.H.

Boat owners say the problem has persisted for at least two years, but got much worse in the last two weeks when at least a half-dozen pieces fell.

Massport officials said yesterday that the bridge, built in 1948, is structurally sound, but refused to immediately provide the Globe with copies of the bridge's maintenance records. They said that the rusty shards are fragments of weather-worn metal plates that were used during the construction of the bridge to catch poured concrete and that the concrete pieces may have been attached to the fragments. The plates, they emphasized, are separate from the steel structure that supports the bridge.

"The bridge is absolutely safe; it is more of a cosmetic issue," said Joe Staub, bridge director. He said that plans were already in place to conduct an in-depth inspection of the bridge, but that the recent attention brought on by the members of the Chelsea Yacht Club has accelerated those plans.

Massport received three complaints last year from boat owners and paid about $2,000 to boat owners to cover the cost of damage, according to agency spokesman Matthew Brelis. Massport is currently reviewing two complaints logged this year, both by French.

Using a bucket truck with a massive extending arm, Massport crews inspected the underside of the bridge yesterday and used a shear to cut off any dangling pieces. Such inspections will occur daily until either nets are put in place, probably within 2 weeks, or workers remove the loose fragments, Staub said.

He added that he spoke with the yacht club's commodore, Angelo Tummino, who said that the club would try to move all watercraft from below the bridge to another area of the dock.

Brelis said the bridge is inspected every two years, in accordance with Federal Highway Administration guidelines. Since 1977, he said, Massport has also conducted a more in-depth inspection every four years. The last two-year inspection was in February 2006, and the last four-year inspection was in early 2004. The next four-year inspection will start next month.

Brelis said the Globe would have to file a public records request to obtain the bridge's maintenance records. About $7 million is spent annually on maintenance of the bridge, and the structure is currently being redecked, he said.

The bridge rises about 125 feet over the yacht club, where about 70 boats are docked, with a dozen or so directly under the bridge.

Yesterday, as Tummino walked across the club's floating wooden pier toward his docked 39-foot boat, where he lives, he stopped several times to pick up small shards of rusted steel scattered on the walkway. Some of the pieces, which resemble tree bark, had the familiar green paint of the Tobin Bridge on one side. After leaping onto his boat, Tummino pointed at a chip in the fiberglass, damage, he said, that was recently caused by a fallen piece.

Walking back to the clubhouse, Tummino stood directly underneath the bridge and pointed again, this time toward two long pieces of metal bending downward, barely attached to the underside of the bridge.

"We have a boating season of about two or three months, but a lot of the members are scared to come out because of the stuff that's falling down," he said. "With the damage that's been caused to the boats, surely someone would be seriously hurt if they were hit."

On July 13, French said, he and two friends were stocking his boat, We'll Sea, for a fishing trip when a piece of concrete shattered his windshield. He and his crew discovered the damage after returning to the boat with supplies from his car.

Almost two weeks later, he said, a friend noticed a small piece of concrete embedded in the boat's fiberglass, a day after he had carefully washed the same area.