WEST NEWBURY — The rehabilitation of the historic Rocks Village Bridge connecting West Newbury and Haverhill across the Merrimack River has been put on the fast track, with the $14 million project scheduled to go out to bid in July.
State officials told local leaders and residents this week the bridge is expected to be shut down for 14 months beginning in June 2012 to allow for reconstruction.
Originally built in 1795, the aging structure has been fast-tracked for improvements on the state's Accelerated Bridge Program, Matt Hopkinson of the Department of Transportation told about 30 people gathered at a public forum Thursday night in Town Annex.
There are no federal funds involved in the project, which aims to conduct a "sensitive rehabilitation of a historically significant structure" Hopkinson said.
Design plans, which are 75 percent complete, will address the structure's extensive deterioration, improve its inadequate load capacity and create better access for emergency vehicles and school buses.
Pentucket Regional School District students living in Merrimac cross the bridge daily to attend middle and high school in West Newbury, as do some students from Groveland and West Newbury who attend Whittier Vocational Regional High School in Haverhill.
The project will take particular care in repairs to the mechanical aspects of the swing span — the only manually operated swing span remaining in the state on the oldest moveable bridge in Massachusetts. A toll bridge until 1878, the 805-foot Rocks Village Bridge washed out in 1818 and was rebuilt in 1828 and again in 1915.
The work includes replacing the deck, strengthening the superstructure and mortaring, patching, resetting stones and repairing the fender on the bridge's under structure, piers and abutments. Live load capacity will increase to accommodate a 20-ton, two-axle truck. Although state officials said the bridge's 12-foot-6-inch vertical limit is inadequate, it will not be changed as part of this project.
No formal land taking is anticipated as part of the project, but the contractor might privately negotiate with abutters for use of their land for parking and storage needs. No night work is anticipated as long as the project stays on schedule, Hopkinson said.
DOT officials were unclear whether the bridge is on the State Register of Historic Places, which would require repairs to be conducted according to guidelines established by the secretary of interiors. Jane Wild, chairwoman of the West Newbury Historical Society, offered to investigate the bridge's historical status further.
A guardrail to protect both drivers and the bridge's trusses will reduce its width by 4 inches on each side. Public Works director Gary Bill said the decrease in width could make it harder for the state to plow the bridge in the winter. However, state officials said the railing selected is the narrowest available that meets crash requirements.
Bridge lighting will be replaced and supplemented with "relatively low-level" lights that illuminate downward to maximize visibility on the bridge and minimize light pollution in the neighborhood. Members of the Rocks Village Historical Commission suggested lighting that might better suit the bridge's historical character.
Several people expressed concern about barrier and warning gates that will be installed 100 feet apart on either side of the entrance to the bridge to let drivers know when boat traffic will require raising it. They wondered how 20-foot vertical warning gates would impact the aesthetics of the area and if warning whistles and horns would be blowing at all hours of the day and night.
"I'd rather have bells and whistles go off than have someone drive into the drink," said Rick Thurlow, who previously served on the West Newbury Road Improvement Committee.
Harbormaster Jim Riley said that by law, the bridge must be accessible at all times for boats to pass under, but he added that boaters must give two-hours' notice in order to have the bridge raised. DOT officials said the channel might need to be closed for a month during the reconstruction.
Selectman Glenn Kemper said he and others fought during the early design process to have sidewalks included in the plans. But he said they were told the project would not qualify for the Accelerated Bridge Program if sidewalks were part of the plans, since they would require additional analysis that would take more time to complete. For the same reason, work on the adjacent tender's house is not part of the project.
Some residents called for adding in traffic-calming measures, noting that while the bridge is designed for a 20 mph speed limit ,many drivers cross it at a much faster pace. The residents said they worry that an improved bridge will result in even faster speeds.
During the 14-month closure, motorists will be detoured toward the south via the existing Bates Bridge in Haverhill and Groveland. The Bates Bridge is being replaced, but the existing bridge will remain in operation until the new one is completed in about three years.
Pentucket Regional Schools Superintendent Paul Livingston asked if alternative plans were in place for routing traffic should a serious safety issue close the Bates Bridge before the new one was finished. He stressed that the school district needs to access Merrimac for both transportation and safety reasons in the event of an emergency that required a quick response from district officials or staff.
Hopkinson said the DOT will address all concerns raised at the public forum and, if necessary, an additional meeting for stakeholders may be scheduled.