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HAVERHILL — City councilors say they fear the old bridge that carries dozens of trains over the Merrimack River each day will eventually collapse.
Councilor William Macek said it's a matter of time before "vibrations or something else" cause the bridge to fall apart.
"Its condition is obvious by the fact they only let trains go 5 mph on it," Councilor William Ryan said. "It's basically been condemned. ... God forbid that bridge goes down with a commuter train on it."
Their comments were in response to news the federal government recently rejected Massachusetts' request for $110 million to replace the 92-year-old railroad bridge at the edge of downtown.
"I was sad to see we won't be getting any money for the railroad bridge," Ryan said.
The two-track span, which is similar in design to one that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, has been repaired several times recently and has forced trains to slow to a crawl while crossing it — freight trains are limited to 5 mph and commuter trains may not exceed 15 mph.
Richard Davey, general manager for the MBTA, said the bridge is "absolutely safe for train service."
"I can tell you unequivocally that we would not be running train service over that bridge if there were any questions about its safety," Davey said.
MBTA commuter trains cross the steel "deck and through truss" design bridge 26 times each weekday, 13 times arriving at the downtown Haverhill station and 13 times leaving for Boston. It is also used daily by the Amtrak Downeaster that runs between Boston and Maine and by Pan American freight trains.
Davey said the bridge was inspected in March and that an engineering firm that is planning for its eventual replacement has been reviewing the span at least monthly for some time.
Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the MBTA, said the current speed restrictions and other conditions were put on the bridge following a 2008 inspection by HDR Engineering of Boston.
According to a June 16, 2009, summary of HDR Engineering's inspection, the bridge is safe for freight trains as long as only one crosses at a time and it travels no faster than 5 mph. The report says it is safe for two commuter trains to cross the bridge at the same time and as long as they do not exceed 15 mph.
The speed restrictions closely followed the Minneapolis disaster that left 13 people dead and dozens injured.
While the MBTA owns more than 300 bridges, the Haverhill bridge is the only one that has the same design as the Minneapolis span that collapsed in 2007, state transportation officials have said.
In 2008, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority inspected the double-track span and rebuilt its deck. The job included replacing about 1,600 bridge timbers, installing walkways and railings across the full length, and laying about 8,000 feet of rail.
An August 2008 story in The Eagle-Tribune described workers from the engineering firm hanging off the bridge from ropes so they could get an up-close look at its underside.
City and state officials had hoped to win a piece of $2.5 billion in high-speed rail funding that recently became available to replace the span.
Instead, Massachusetts was awarded $20.8 million from that money to build a 10.4-mile section of double track between Haverhill and Boston that is designed to speed up train travel in this part of the state.
Councilors lamented the loss of the federal money and agreed to invite Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, to Haverhill to view the bridge.
"I'm not sure our congressional delegation did enough to get this money," said Ryan, a former Haverhill mayor. "We need to scream and yell about this. Now's the time. Let's get Niki Tsongas down there and see what she can do. She may not even be aware of the seriousness of the situation. We have the potential for a disaster here. We have 100-car freight trains going over that bridge every day."
John Noble, Tsongas' communications director, said the congresswoman will "absolutely take up the council's invitation to visit the bridge with MBTA officials."
Despite not getting the federal money to replace the bridge, Noble touted the congressional delegation's success in securing $20 million to install a second track on the Haverhill line.
"We hope to build on this success by continuing to work with state and federal officials to keep the Merrimack River Bridge safe and usable," Noble said in a written statement.
Macek said councilors have a responsibility to speak out about the situation before there's a disaster.
"Vibrations or something else is eventually going to take it down," Macek said of the bridge. "There's probably nothing in our area that's more in need of repairs. It's obviously very unsafe."
Fiorentini said he has been assured by state transportation officials that the bridge is safe. But he also said he was told it has to be replaced or "extensively repaired" over the next few years.
Davey, the MBTA general manager, said the bridge is on a list with 25 to 30 critical projects that do not yet have funding sources. He said the authority will continue to make interim repairs until money is found to replace the span.
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About the Merrimack River railroad bridge
Built in 1919.
Connects Bradford train station to downtown Haverhill station
Carries MBTA commuter trains over the river and Washington Street
Includes two tracks and 1,600 wooden railroad ties
Speed limited to 5 mph for freight trains and 15 mph for commuter trains