By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY – As the Whittier Bridge reconstruction project begins to kick into high gear, a renewed focus is being placed on possibly integrating the city’s barely-used visitors center into the shared-used bike path that will span the Merrimack River upon the project’s completion in 2016.
The Chain Bridge visitors center, located at the corner of Main and Merrill Street near the entrance to the Hines Bridge, has been underutilized for years, and many local residents have expressed interest in connecting the site to the nearby bike trails so that riders will have easy access to the Merrimack River waterfront along Main Street.
“There has been a push to make a connection right off the bridge onto Main Street so people can get off and go along the Merrimack River,” said Mayor Thatcher Kezer. “I can’t say that there is a specific plan that’s been approved, but there has been a lot of productive conversation to make some kind of connection there at the visitors center.”
Under the current Whittier Bridge plan, a shared-used pedestrian lane will span the river and connect the existing trails in Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury. On the Amesbury side of the river, the trail is expected to run along the highway before dropping down along the Old Merrill Street extension near Route 110, where it could then link up to the nearby Riverwalk Path in Amesbury and the Ghost Trail in Salisbury.
If a connection were added near the Chain Bridge visitors center in the future, it would be done as a separate project from the ongoing Whittier Bridge reconstruction, according to Mike Verseckes, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokesperson.
“At this point it’s outside the scope of the Whittier Bridge project, so we’re not planning to fold this into the larger project to rebuild the Whittier Bridge,” Verseckes said.
Any prospective bike path connection at the Chain Bridge visitors center would likely have to overcome a lot of obstacles to become a reality. Besides the obvious funding challenges, there is also the fact that bikers who come into Amesbury over the Whittier Bridge could still reach the waterfront by way of Merrill Street fairly quickly.
Kezer said that there are a number of other problematic issues that would need to be resolved, including wetland issues and handicap accessibility concerns, but given the Whittier Bridge’s construction timeline, project advocates would have at least three years to solve those problems and come up with a plan anyway.
“The river connection is the last part of the project, because the second phase bridge has to be completed and the southbound traffic moved to the second new bridge in order to create the bike lane,” Kezer said. “It’ll be a driver lane up until that point.”
The Amesbury visitors center has seen many uses since the single-story structure was first built in 1938. Originally it was known as Smith’s Chain Bridge Filling Station No. 3, named after Nelson Smith, who purchased the property in 1933 and built the station five years later.
The gas station closed in the mid-1970s and then became a car wash, which operated at the site until it shut down in the early 1990s. The town took the site shortly afterwards due to unpaid taxes, and today the building is used primarily as a place to set up holiday-themed displays, but not much else.
Over the past year, a plan to transform a brick building in the Lower Millyard into a new home for the Amesbury Carriage Museum, the Amesbury Visitors Center and the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce has begun to build momentum. What impact the plan could have on the Chain Bridge visitors center is unclear at this point, but Kezer said there is still interest within the community to spruce up the area.
“There are people in the neighborhood who have approached me who have done beautification and landscaped that area in the past, they’ve told me they want to do more,” Kezer said.
That being said, any beautification efforts would likely have to wait at least for a little while, because the entire area will soon become a construction site as the bridge carrying I-95 over Main Street is replaced, Kezer said.
“That will turn into a construction site right there, so I told folks not to rush into any new beautification projects for the visitors center because its going to be a construction site for a while,” Kezer said. “Lets get through that and then we can figure out what exactly we can do in that area.”