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Whittier Bridge targeted for quick review by US

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 12, 2011

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The state’s $285 million reconstruction of the distinctive double-barreled, double-arched Whittier Bridge could be finished sooner than expected after being selected yesterday as one of 14 projects nationwide to receive streamlined review in a federal pilot program.

That decision could shave a year off the schedule to rebuild the decaying bridge that carries Interstate 95 over the Merrimack River. It means that the Federal Highway Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers will review the project at once and in coordination, instead of one at a time, state and federal officials said.

The selection signals the project’s significance - the badly rusted bridge carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, on the primary route from Boston to the New Hampshire and Maine coasts - and its potential to put construction crews back to work.

Faster review could also save taxpayers millions by allowing the state to advertise for contractors earlier, capitalizing on a weak economy that has construction firms eager to outbid each other, the state’s top highway administrator said.

“Getting this work out the door, especially in this current economy, has the double benefit of creating a large number of jobs and, with the current level of competition, we can realize savings in construction costs,’’ said Frank DePaola, head of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Highway Division. He estimated the project would employ about 350 full-time workers during a nearly four-year construction schedule.

Local officials hailed the announcement. “The sooner we can get it moving,’’ Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III of Amesbury said, “the sooner the jobs will start and the project will move forward.’’

The replacement of the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge between Newburyport and Amesbury is one of the most expensive and complex in Massachusetts, with the state intending to tear down the old span and build a new one alongside it, while keeping I-95 traffic flowing.

The new Whittier will be the first interstate highway bridge in Massachusetts to carry a protected bicycle and pedestrian path. It will also ease a chokepoint for motorists, replacing the current configuration - three lanes and no shoulders in each direction - with four lanes plus shoulders, to match the approaching highway on each side.

The nearly 60-year-old Whittier Bridge is still considered safe, but has deteriorated to the point that it would need lane reductions and weight restrictions in the next few years, as a prelude to closure. Rehabilitation is not an option, because of the extent of the decay and because the existing design lacks redundancies to keep the bridge standing if a major element fails, DePaola said.

Lack of redundancy contributed to the fatal collapse of a similar highway bridge in Minnesota in 2007, a tragedy that prompted Governor Deval Patrick and lawmakers here to enact the Accelerated Bridge Program, an eight-year, $3 billion campaign to address hundreds of long-neglected spans in Massachusetts.

The Whittier is one of that program’s signature projects, along with the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge and the Fore River Bridge linking Quincy and Weymouth.

The state considered submitting all three projects after learning a month ago that the White House was seeking candidates for faster federal review.

Working with Federal Highway Administration officials in the Cambridge regional office, the state nominated Whittier partly because of the sensitivity of the congested Longfellow site and because Fore River is already midway through the federal review process, DePaola said.

The White House yesterday announced 14 winners from among dozens of applications, with the Whittier joined by a list that includes the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, a system of water treatment plants and pipelines in New Mexico, and a 15-turbine wind farm in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest.

Previously, the state had expected a methodical, 12-to-18-month timeline for the Whittier review, a process that began in June with the submission of an environmental assessment to the federal highway agency detailing construction effects on neighbors and the environment. That would traditionally be followed by review from the Coast Guard on the temporary disruption to river navigation and the Army Corps on the plan to dredge and work in the waterway.

Instead, the three agencies will act in concert. That means the state could receive federal approval by early 2012, putting the project, which includes some related highway improvements between exits 57 and 60, on pace for completion by fall 2016, DePaola said.

The state intends to build the northbound lanes alongside the old bridge, demolish the old Whittier, then build the southbound lanes in its place, while using movable barriers to keep three lanes of traffic flowing in peak directions during commutes. Though the Department of Transportation had said it would try to avoid detours and peak lane restrictions, it may consider them to save time and money, DePaola said.

The Whittier construction will be a technically complex undertaking with workers suspended high above the river, building a bridge that echoes the arched design of the old, albeit with superior engineering and a considerably higher price. The existing bridge, named for the 19th-century poet who called the Merrimack Valley home, was completed by Labor Day 1954 and cost $5 million to build, about $42 million in 2011 dollars.

“It’s going to be an amazing project to watch,’’ said Mayor Donna D. Holaday of Newburyport who formed a working group with counterparts from Amesbury and nearby Salisbury, to appeal for the bike and pedestrian lane, to link recreational trails that follow old rail beds along the Merrimack.

The state initially hesitated but agreed partly after realizing the extra width for the path could be used to help maintain traffic flow during construction.

About the bridge
The John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge replaced the aging drawbridge in downtown Newburyport and serves Interstate 95, which siphoned off heavy through traffic from Route 1.
SOURCE: Massachusetts Department of Transportation