Jim Vaiknoras/Staff photo The Derek Hines Bridge as seen from Deer Island.

AMESBURY — In light of public outcry over the length of the Derek Hines Memorial Bridge closure, state Sen. Steven Baddour says the estimated three-and-a-half-year closure is "unacceptable" and officials will have to come up with a "better way" to fix the deficient bridge.

At a public meeting Wednesday night, Mass Highway engineers outlined a plan to close the bridge for rehabilitation starting next summer and for it to remain closed for up to three-and-a-half years. The plan garnered confusion and frustration among local residents and officials, who felt caught off guard and under the impression the rehabilitation would be done in a shorter amount of time.

At Wednesday night's public hearing held by MassHighway, Planning Board member Karen Solstad said she was shocked at the three-year time frame and was under the impression the repair would be done in under a year.

"Mike Costello's office and I will be calling for MassHighway officials to alter the schedule and expedite the repair work," Baddour said. "Three-and-a-half years is unacceptable."

When the project was first announced at a hearing more than three years ago, MassHighway officials said the process could take more than three years to complete. At that time, the project was scheduled for 2007. Delayed two years for a 2009 start, and with an entire new council and mayoral leadership in town since then, local officials weren't expecting this week's news.

MassHighway spokesperson Adam Hurtubise defended the state agency, noting the time frame associated with the closure never changed.

"In that hearing, (April 26, 2005) MassHighway said that construction duration is expected to be three to three-and-a-half years and that the contractor would have to use a detour. That was also stated in the Public Hearing handout," Hurtubise said.

But even Baddour, Chair of the State Transportation Committee who was in office at the time of the 2005 hearing, said he was surprised by the length of closure.

"I spoke to MassHighway about the fact I wasn't briefed on the closure," said. "I'm upset about not being briefed and expressed my concern over the delay."

Mayor Thatcher Kezer put his trust in MassHighway, noting they are the experts and would be working with the town to manage the details of what the project will mean to traffic.

"I'm hoping the three-and-a-half-year time line is taking into consideration all the contingencies that may happen and that the closure is much less," said Kezer, who did not attend the public hearing last week at Town Hall where the project was detailed. "I wasn't aware of the full extent of the time frame."

Councilor Robert Gilday, who represents District 1, the area of town most impacted, said he knew nothing of the time frame and that Mass Highway did not reach out to the council to make the time frame clear.

"I think we need to get them to work around the clock to get the project done quicker for the people in my district," said Gilday, who also was not present at the hearing. "Hopefully the council will be invited to review the project."

Under the proposed plan, the Hines bridge would close for an estimated three to three-and-one-half years starting summer 2009, while the deck is replaced and improvements are made to the mechanical and electrical systems for the swing span. Work also needs to be done on the stone masonry piers and abutments, wingwalls and sidewalls.

Councilor-at-large Anne Ferguson, the only one of the nine municipal councilors in attendance last Wednesday, expressed strong concerns to engineers who were present to discuss the parameters of the project.

"Three to just about four years is a concern," Ferguson said. "With Whittier having so much trouble, we could be on our own island and we will have to row to Newburyport."

Solstad also voiced concern about the economic impact of the closure, saying without the bridge Amesbury's growing downtown would suffer.

Dave Anderson, manager of Martignetti Enterprises, an Amesbury landscaping supply business located a short distance from the bridge, said the closure of the bridge would seriously damage his business located on Merrill Street.

"More than 50 percent of our business is from Newburyport," Anderson said. "We will cross that bridge when we get to it, but we just have to hope we have put a good enough front up that people go the extra mile to come here."

Martignetti changed ownership in 2004, but Anderson said he had heard the previous owner suffered greatly when the bridge was closed previously for repair work.

Baddour said even though public safety is the main priority, he will urge MassHighway officials to appreciate the importance the bridge has to commerce between Amesbury and Newburyport.

"The goal is to work with MassHighway to come up with the best plan," Baddour said, noting it could mean late-night work or a different schedule. "They just have to come up with a creative way of fixing it. I understand this is the first step of the repair process, but they need to come up with a better plan of doing this with us."

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