By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The state has approved a $24 million contract to begin rebuilding the deteriorated downtown train bridge, a century-old span that some local officials feared would eventually collapse.
Work is expected to begin in April and take about three years to complete, according to the MBTA. City and state officials have said the project will have an impact on commuters and some downtown businesses. It will require occasional suspension of train activity and busing of commuters, the officials said.
The bridge crosses both the Merrimack River and Washington Street and connects the western end of downtown to the city’s Bradford section.
The bridge is heavily used by MBTA commuter trains, the Amtrak Downeaster and PanAm freight trains. It connects the city’s downtown commuter rail station and the Bradford station.
Because of the bridge’s deteriorated condition, state transportation officials have been planning for its replacement for several years.
Speed and weight restrictions have been in place for trains crossing the two-track railroad bridge for several years. Passenger trains are limited to 15 mph and freight to 5 mph. Only one freight train at a time is allowed on the bridge.
In the recent past, some city councilors have said they fear the bridge is unsafe and could collapse. State officials have said the bridge is monitored regularly and is safe.
The winning bidder for the $24 million job is a joint proposal by LM Heavy Civil Construction LLC and Cooperativa Muratori & Cementisti — CMC di Ravenna. The work includes structural repairs to the entire bridge, rehabilitation of the land piers and replacement of the bridge bearings, MBTA spokesman Joseph Pesaturo said.
The contract is the first phase of a two-part project that is expected to cost $100 million, Pesaturo said. He said a second contract will be awarded later for repairs to the substructure for the bridge piers in the river.
The 1,042-foot bridge connecting downtown Haverhill to the Bradford half of the city actually includes three bridges — the Merrimack River Bridge and two shorter spans, the Merrimack River North Approach Bridge and the Washington Street Bridge. According to a press release from the transportation agency, the bridges were built between the late 1800s and 1920s.
“The maintenance and upkeep of our infrastructure is of paramount importance to our work at the MBTA,” said MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott. “Safety is our number one priority and these necessary repairs to these bridges will ensure we are able to continue safe and reliable commuter rail service over the Merrimack River.”
Scott said the transportation agency has been closely monitoring the bridges with regular inspections and “live load rating analysis” to assure they are safe for service.
“After careful monitoring and thoughtful review, a decision was made to repair the entire bridge superstructure at once, taking into account cost, service impacts and other factors,” Scott said.
Pesaturo said work is expected to begin in April. He said buses will replace train service for a limited number of off-peak train trips.
There will also be six weekends between September 2014 and November of 2016 in which train service will be suspended to accommodate construction, Pesaturo said. Beyond that, most scheduled trains will be operating and the downtown station will stay open for service, Pesaturo said.
“This is great news for the city,” Mayor James Fiorentini said about the awarding of the contract. “Fixing the bridge means more reliable passenger train service, which has always been vital for Haverhill. But it is going to be an inconvenience in the short-term.”
As construction nears, MBTA will issue service alerts to its Haverhill Line customers and provide variable message sign boards at Bradford and Haverhill stations, offering updates to customers, the MBTA’s press release said.
Following a 2008 inspection of the railroad 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.