By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — City officials were briefed yesterday on the construction timeline of the $292 million Whittier Bridge reconstruction project, which will see the existing six-lane bridge replaced with a new eight-lane bridge by 2016.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer said he and other officials were given a pre-construction presentation to explain the latest on the project now that a contractor is in place, and Kezer said residents can expect to see work begin in June or July.
“The first thing you’ll see is work in the river; that’s the first thing you’ll visibly see during this summer,” Kezer said. “The piers that hold the bridge up, that’s the first phase, and those have already been designed; and while that’s being constructed, they’ll design the actual bridge.”
The John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge was built in 1951 and named after the poet and abolitionist who called Amesbury home. The bridge carries Interstate 95 over the Merrimack River and has served as a key link in the state’s highway transportation network for 58 years, but is structurally deficient and is nearing the end of its economic life.
Over the next three years, the existing bridge will be replaced and the new bridge will be wider, safer and built up to current standards. Throughout the course of the project, three lanes of traffic will remain open in both directions, so motorists should see minimal disruptions in traffic flow, Kezer said.
The way that will be accomplished is a new four-lane bridge will be constructed right next to the existing one, and once that is completed, traffic will be diverted from the existing bridge to the new one. That will allow the old bridge to be torn down so a second new four-lane bridge can be constructed in its place.
“You’ll have the northbound on one bridge, the southbound on the other, and there will be a little gap in between them,” Kezer said. “That’s how they’re doing this while keeping the existing bridge in place.”
Each new bridge will also include breakdown lanes, and Kezer said once the project is complete, the extra breakdown lane will be converted into a multi-use path. That path is expected to link the various bike trails in Amesbury, Salisbury and Newburyport into a completed network that connects the local communities.
It will also be the first time in Massachusetts history that a bike/pedestrian path has been installed on an interstate bridge.
In addition to the main Whittier Bridge reconstruction, the project also encompasses the rehabilitation of numerous other bridges and the widening of portions of Interstate 95 between exit 57 and exit 60.
The deceleration lanes at exits 58 and 60 will also be modified so motorists will be able to enter the off ramp at a higher rate of speed, allowing more time to slow down. Design speeds at Exit 58 northbound to Route 110 east and Exit 60 northbound to Toll Road east will be boosted from 25 to 35 miles per hour, and Exit 58 northbound to Route 110 west will go from 20 to 25 miles per hour.
Kezer said the city wasn’t provided details surrounding the specific timelines of when each phase of the project would be done, only that the whole thing should take about three years.
The Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project is one of five Accelerated Bridge Program projects known as “mega projects” by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. It is the only project in the state to have been designated as a presidential priority by President Barack Obama.
In February, the MassDOT announced that the project had been awarded to the joint venture of Walsh/McCourt for $292,155,280. The project is being paid for entirely with federal funds.