By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Ten million dollars is on its way to repair the old downtown railroad bridge across the Merrimack River.
U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas announced yesterday that the federal money is about to be released for the span, which connects the western end of downtown to Bradford.
Speed and weight restrictions have been in place for trains crossing the two-track railroad bridge for several years, and some city councilors have said they fear it could collapse if it is not repaired soon. State officials have said the structure, built in 1919, is checked regularly and is safe.
Local officials have said the $10 million is a welcome down payment toward a larger amount of money needed to replace the bridge — as much as $98 million. They said the city will continue seeking other grant money to get the job done.
“The Merrimack River Bridge repairs will move forward thanks to consistent local, state and federal partnerships,” Tsongas said in a press release. “This rail system provides an integral connection from Boston to Haverhill and other northern locations and maintaining its integrity is essential to economic and job growth in this region. Repairs will ensure commute times are improved, delays are eliminated and the safety of the bridge is maintained. The funding will now be put to good use as this project progresses full-steam ahead.”
The bridge is heavily used by MBTA commuter trains, the Amtrak Downeaster and PanAm freight trains. Because of its deteriorated condition, state transportation officials have been planning for its eventual replacement for several years.
While the structure has been declared safe by MBTA officials, trains must cross at reduced speeds, which causes significant delays, especially for commuters, officials said.
The $10 million is coming from a federal program created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional projects that are challenging to fund by other means,” according to the release from Tsongas’ office.
In 2011, state transportation officials submitted a formal application for $98.4 million in federal High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail funds to replace the Haverhill bridge. The request was denied and instead of receiving the bridge money, the state was awarded $20.8 million to build a 10-mile section of double track between Haverhill and Boston.
The bridge is at the western edge of downtown and is similar in design to the one that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007. Following a 2008 inspection of the Haverhill bridge, the MBTA put in place restrictions that limit freight trains to 5 mph and commuter trains to 15 mph when crossing the bridge. The MBTA made extensive repairs to the bridge’s deck in 2008, including replacing timbers and installing walkways and railings across the full length, and laying about 8,000 feet of rail.