HAVERHILL — The MBTA has given a contractor approval to start the first phase of rebuilding the deteriorated downtown train bridge — a $24 million project that is expected to impact commuters, downtown visitors and some businesses for the next three years.
There will be six weekends between September 2014 and November of 2016 when train service at the downtown station will be suspended to accommodate construction, MBTA officials said. Buses will used to replace train service at that station for a limited number of off-peak train trips, the officials said.
Beyond that, most scheduled trains will be operating and the downtown station will stay open for service, the MBTA said.
The schedule for trains farther down the line in the Merrimack Valley is not expected to change. If changes to the schedule at other stops do occur, the MBTA said it will update commuters before those changes.
The century-old railroad bridge crosses both the Merrimack River and Washington Street and connects the downtown commuter rail station to the Bradford station on the other side of the waterway. The span is heavily used by MBTA commuter trains, the Amtrak Downeaster and PanAm freight trains.
In the recent past, some city councilors have said they fear the bridge is unsafe and could collapse. State officials have said the structure is monitored regularly and is safe — but does need heavy renovations.
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.
MBTA spokesman Kelly Smith said the contractor, LM Heavy Civil Construction LLC, was given notice to proceed April 1. However, work is still a few weeks from starting, Smith said.
Michael Stankovich, Haverhill’s public works director, said the contractor plans to hold a “pre-construction meeting” this month with city officials and various departments such as police, fire and planning, to lay out the project schedule and discuss potential impacts.