Haverhill’s Version of ’Big Dig’ Nears Finish

Tue February 06, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Kip Fry

When a bridge is built to replace an old one, the new one is often constructed before the original is torn down. That is not the case in Haverhill, Mass.

Since 2002, drivers in this northeastern Massachusetts community have had to cross the Merrimack River by using a detour. The original Joseph C. Comeau Bridge on Upper Bridge Street was so badly deteriorated that it had to be taken down four years ago. That left traffic with no where to go but to follow a detour a .25 mi. (.4 km) down the road to another bridge.

In fact, construction has gone on there for so long that a joke is circulating around the area that the project is Haverhill’s version of the Big Dig, the massive and ill-fated construction project just down the road in Boston. That might be a slight stretch, but it has turned out to be quite lengthy. The fact is that there is a light at the end of the bridge. Work is anticipated to be finished by the end of 2007 and the contractor will be on site throughout the winter months to ensure that happens.

The new bridge is on the same footprint as the original one, according to David Conroy, residential engineer of the Massachusetts Department of Highways (MassHighway).

Despite the long duration of the $17.9 million project, Conroy stated that the work was “pretty straight forward.” That is until last year when high waters in the Merrimack created flooding in the cofferdams.

“It wasn’t as bad as we thought,” Conroy said, but there was still enough water to threaten the temporary truss bridge that had been installed across the river. The temporary bridge is there to allow pedestrians to cross and construction equipment to be easily moved to points on the permanent span where it was needed.

Nothing had to be done to alleviate the problem because the water receded on its own before anything was damaged, according to Jack Harney, vice president and area manager of J.F. White of Framingham, Mass., the primary contractor for the job.

“There are various issues with every job,” Harney stated. Other than that, things are “progressing great,” he added.

The new bridge is 800 ft. (242 m) long and connects downtown Haverhill with the town of Bradford on the south side of the river. It will have a concrete deck and asphalt top, along with a sidewalk on both sides and ornamental lighting and railings. Like the original Comeau Bridge, it will have two lanes of traffic and will stand 30 ft. (9.09 m) above the water.

“It looks great on paper. The lighting matches the downtown in Haverhill,” commented Conroy.

The new span is a steel tub girder bridge.

J.F. White primarily uses Caterpillar equipment, but Manitowoc cranes 999 and 2250 are on site, as well, Harney said. Approximately 3,120 cu. yds. (2,400 cu m) of earth have been moved during the project. A new approach roadway measuring 300 ft. (91 m) also is in the plans.

The original bridge also was a steel truss bridge, but it had a grate decking through which people could look whenever they peered down toward the water. The grate created a loud noise whenever vehicles drove over it. Built in 1906, it would have celebrated its 100th anniversary this year had it been standing.

Conroy estimated that the new span is approximately 65 percent finished. Before the deck is finished, utility wires will be installed between the abutments. Permanent utility placement started the end of November. MassHighway reported that, as of mid-November, all the steel girders were in place and that work on the cross frames and utility supports will follow.

The bridge in Haverhill is indicative of a problem found throughout Massachusetts. Scores of bridges around the commonwealth are in need of replacing, which is one of the reasons why it is taking so long to finish this project. MassHighway is simply being stressed financially, making it difficult to even get projects off the ground. Haverhill ranks second in the northeastern region of the commonwealth for having the greatest number of bridges needing work. Behind Danvers (11), Haverhill is tied with Amesbury with seven.

A report in the Boston Globe recently stated that 560 of the 4,400 bridges in the Bay State (12.7 percent) have been deemed “structurally deficient” by the United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, meaning simply that they have problems that should be addressed.

That figure may go higher because more than half of the state’s bridges are at least 40 years old. Back when they were built, engineers tended to cut corners with their measurements. They designed bridges to be as narrow as they absolutely could be. But that is not acceptable by today’s safety standards.

The need for repairs across the state can be seen in the figures. A total of $188 million was spent in 2004, while $206 million was needed in 2005. CEG

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