By Dave Rogers
---- — Over a roughly 22-year career building bridges and other heavy duty construction projects, Newburyporter Mark Chaisson has spent an estimated 14 years away from home. With projects taking place on Martha’s Vineyard or Miami or a dozen more far-off places in between, the option of coming home for dinner hasn’t been realistic for the pile driving foreman for Walsh Construction out of Chicago.
But for his latest project, all the 49-year-old Pine Hill Road resident has to do for a home-cooked meal is walk across the street. For the next few years, Chaisson will be helping demolish and reconstruct the John Greenleaf Whittier Memorial Bridge, a mere “45 seconds” from home.
“It’s a nice opportunity, rare and nice. It’s not often you get to work on a job this big and this close to home. This type of job for me, I’m very excited to work on a project this size, this scale — something my family will drive over for 50 years,” Chaisson said.
Chaisson’s easy commute has become the envy of the job site. Yesterday, project superintendent Paul Grimaldi didn’t mince words when asked what he thought of his co-worker’s situation.
“I’m real jealous. I’m 90 miles from home. You bet I am (envious),” said Grimaldi, who lives in near the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.
Chaisson, the cousin of Newburyport police Sgt. Steven Chaisson, said that long commutes are part of the job for most people in his field. And over the years, he has grown accustomed to them. That makes working so close even more special, if not jarring at first. An added emotional bonus for Chaisson, a longtime member of Local 56 piledriver union, is that he didn’t even know he’d be working so close to his backyard. Instead it was Walsh officials who sought him out.
“They came to me,” Chaisson said, with a proud smile on his weathered face.
In February, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation accepted a nearly $300 million contract from the joint venture of Walsh/McCourt to replace the iconic yet aging bridge and rehabilitate eight additional bridges to accommodate the widening of Interstate 95 in Newburyport, Amesbury, and Salisbury. The project — considered one of the largest highway jobs in the state — will involve demolishing the 58-year-old, six-lane span connecting Amesbury and Newburyport over the Merrimack River and replacing it with an eight-lane bridge with four lanes on each side.
The Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project is one of five Accelerated Bridge Program projects known as “mega projects” by MassDOT.
It also includes the replacement or reconstruction of eight nearby bridges along I-95 in Newburyport and Amesbury and widening I-95 between exit 57 in Newburyport and exit 60 in Salisbury.
The northbound side of the bridge is scheduled to be completed first and will be 16 feet wider than the southbound side. The existing bridge will be demolished in segments from the center span toward both shorelines.
Construction began this spring but aside from the sight of a barge secured near the bridge, most people wouldn’t know it. Chaisson said: “There’s a lot of work going on that nobody knows what’s going on.”
The last few weeks, Walsh construction crews have been building a staging area off Spring Street near the city’s water treatment facility, where another project is also underway. Massive quantities of rock have been carted into the job site and dumped over a large swath of shoreline to construct the area where most of the heavy equipment and material used to be destroy and rebuild the bridge will take place. Another staging area is under construction off Elm Street across the river in Salisbury.
Eventually, there will be two more segmental barges in the water and Chaisson will be busy, up to 12 hours a day, six days week, working on the floating construction platforms. By the end of summer people will be able to tell something massive is underway. Construction is expected to continue well into 2016, state officials have said.
So far, Chaisson has been spared boatloads of questions from family, friends and others asking him how the project is going. But already he has fielded a question from his mother, a question he didn’t have an answer for.
“Mom wanted to know if the bridge would be completed on time,” Chiasson said, with a chuckle.
Lane closures begin due to bridge work
The state Department of Transportation announced this week that lane closures will begin on Interstate 95, as part of the Whittier Bridge reconstruction and highway widening project.
Lane closures will be in the north and southbound directions on the bridge itself and on both sides of I-95 within the project limits. Daytime closures will be limited to single lanes. Nighttime closures may be single or multiple lanes, depending on the location. Lane closures will be during non-peak travel times. The activities and schedule are as follows:
Week of July 8:
Install erosion controls throughout the project area Layout and saw cut pavement for traffic barrier line on interstate at northern end of project area Prepare staging area on Spring Lane Mobilize equipment for Whittier Bridge Pier 3 construction, the northern most bridge pier on the Amesbury side of the Merrimack River
Week of July 15: Begin removing trees and shrubs in right-of-way Continue saw cutting for traffic barrier Begin installing Pier 3 cofferdams
Week of July 22:
Start installing temporary traffic barrier on interstate at northern end of project area.