Crews Race Winter Weather on Worcester Viaduct Project

Tue September 07, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Kip Fry

Time is not always on the side of construction crews, especially when they are informed that a major section of their work has to be done before cold, winter weather sets in. That is the situation in Worcester, MA, where work on the two phases of a bridge construction project has been stepped up so both will be finished by December 2005, a year earlier than initially planned.

Both bridges of the I-290 viaduct near downtown Worcester are being replaced. To many, they may seem like one, but there is actually approximately an inch of space between the two, so they can be worked on separately. Due to salt deterioration over the past number of years, both bridges are in desperate need of rebuilding.

Everything on the bridges will be rebuilt except for the structural steel of the substructure, according to Paul Stedman, an engineer of the Massachusetts Highway Department (MassHighway). As a result, traffic will be rerouted to the other bridge, creating just two lanes in each direction while work proceeds on the first bridge.

The interstate runs through the heart of Worcester, so it is a heavily traveled highway carrying 120,000 vehicles a day. It also is used as a cutoff between I-495 (the outermost loop around Boston) and I-90, the Massachusetts Turnpike. Subsequently, the $16.5-million job must be done quickly. What had been scheduled as a three-part project over the next three years has been altered so that it can be completed by the end of 2005. That way, the impact on traffic through the city will not be as intrusive and long-lasting. It also eliminates the need for work during the winter. During those months, the entire highway and all the exit ramps will be open as normal.

“We want to try to get in and get out,” Stedman said.

Because it is important to avoid wintertime work, SPS New England, the contractor for the project, wants to be finished before the holidays. “After that you’re really risking things,” said Tim McLaughlin, vice president of operations for SPS, based in Salisbury, MA. Testa Corporation of Lynnfield, MA, is in charge of the demolition. Testa worked on the Big Dig project in Boston so “they know what they are doing,” said Stedman.

Other subcontractors include: Blast-All Inc., of Old Seabrook, NH, cleaning and painting the structural steel; Highway Safety Solutions of Hanover, MA, which will do the temporary pavement marking; and Commonwealth Guardrail of Agawam, MA.

“The project didn’t initially include working under this schedule, but MassHighway thought it would be better for the public,” McLaughlin said.

The tight time constraints have added extra pressure for everyone involved. As a result, a great deal of cooperation is needed between MassHighway, the city of Worcester and the different contractors, something that everyone involved said they feel is happening.

“Everyone realizes how tight the schedule is,” McLaughlin said.

The different agencies also have joined forces in a couple ways. First, an aggressive sign campaign is notifying motorists of the closure: changeable message boards have been placed on all the major highways going through Worcester. Notices also are being placed in the local media and a telephone hot line has been established. Second, parts of a parking lot beneath the bridges will be closed whenever work is being done directly above.

Work includes: repairing the substructure; replacing the bridge deck; reinforcing and painting the existing structural steel; installing a drainage system; and adding a railing.

The project already has begun with work on the eastbound bridge. All traffic has been redirected to the westbound bridge. Before construction started, there were three lanes in each direction. Now, the westbound bridge is carrying all the traffic on four lanes tightly squeezed onto that deck, utilizing every bit of space including the merging and weaving lane.

“There’s just barely enough room for four lanes,” McLaughlin said.

Median crossovers were the first things built, Stedman said. Barriers were then placed between oncoming lanes to keep traffic separate.

Once work is done with that bridge, attention will then turn next spring to the westbound one. At that time the new eastbound bridge will take all the traffic. McLaughlin said that both bridges were at similar levels of disrepair, so it really didn’t matter which one was done first. But just because the second bridge will be worked on later does not mean that it was in any less need of repair.

Large excavators have been used on the project, namely Komatsu and Caterpillar, McLaughlin said, as well as National cranes and Euclid dump trucks.

People driving straight through the city on the highway will not experience any detours. But anyone wishing to use any of three exit ramps will have to take an alternative route — those exits (East Central, Grafton and Shrewsbury Streets) will be closed throughout the duration of the construction, although the Shrewsbury exit will be affected only during the first phase.

The bridges are approximately 1,600 ft. (485.3 m) long and are approximately 50 years old. They cross four streets and a railroad track. It had been proposed early in the process that repairs be done in more of a piecemeal manner, but that didn’t seem to many to be very efficient.

“It takes tremendous time and money to repair sections. With potholes you have to jackhammer and pour concrete and it creates traffic impacts,” Stedman said. “It is more cost-effective this way.”