By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A $100 million project to rebuild the deteriorated downtown train bridge is expected to begin in the spring and take about three years to complete, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he is thrilled the span is finally going to be repaired, but that the project is going to have a major impact on downtown.
“We are concerned about the impact to our downtown businesses near the train bridge and the impact to commuters and the general public,” Fiorentini said. “We stressed to (MBTA) that we want the downtown parking garage kept open, we want commuter trains to keep running to the extent possible, and we want the minimal impact possible on commuters, the public and local businesses.”
The train bridge, which crosses both the Merrimack River and Washington Street and connects the western end of downtown to the city’s Bradford section, 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.
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 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.
MBTA spokesman Joseph 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 activity, Pesaturo said.
Beyond that, most scheduled trains will be operating and the downtown station will stay open for service, Pesaturo said.
Pesaturo said opening bids for the first part of the project were reviewed last week and that “the apparent low bidder” is a joint proposal by LM Heavy Civil Construction LLC and Cooperativa Muratori & Cementisti - CMC di Ravenna.
The joint venture proposes to do the first phase of the project for $24 million, Pesaturo said. That work includes structural repairs to the entire superstructure, rehabilitation of the land piers and replacement of the bridge bearings, he said.
The state transportation board of directors will consider awarding the job to the low bidder later this month, Pesaturo said.
Pesaturo said a second contract will be awarded later for repairs to the substructure for the bridge piers in the Merrimack River. The total project is expected to cost about $100 million, Pesaturo said.
The state received $10 million toward the cost from the federal government last year.
“As we get closer to April, the MBTA will issue service alerts to its Haverhill Line customers,” Pesaturo said, adding that “variable message sign boards” will be placed at the downtown and Bradford stations to provide passengers with updates on the project and train and bus schedules.
Fiorentini said the MBTA has promised to keep the downtown commuter rail station open during construction.
“The trains will continue to run except for a few weekends during construction, and they have agreed to provide some alternative parking once they begin work,” the mayor said. “There will still be an impact and people will be inconvenienced, but we will continue to stress to the MBTA that we want the minimal possible impact.”
At its meeting last week, City Council agreed to send a letter asking the MBTA to send a representative to an upcoming meeting to brief the councilors on the plan to repair the train bridge as well as other projects along the Haverhill commuter rail line.
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.