NEWBURYPORT — The City Council is asking Massachusetts Highway Department officials to come and meet with them to explain why the replacement of the Hines bridge will take so long, saying in a letter to the state agency that it "strains the imagination" that the replacement project will take more than three years.

MassHighway held a public hearing in Amesbury last month to inform residents about the details of the bridge project, slated to begin next summer.

Councilor Barry Connell, chairman of the Newburyport council's Public Utilities Committee, drafted a letter to send to the state, which all the councilors agreed to sign during a meeting last night.

"When I first saw that article (detailing the closing), my hair stood on end," Connell said, adding that there is "no reason" why the bridge should be closed for so long.

Connell called the time frame "an unreasonable burden on our communities," saying when the Chain Bridge was closed, traffic backed up and businesses were affected.

"We know that MassHighway is capable of moving construction projects at a faster pace," Connell wrote in his letter. "The entire Tobin Bridge, for example, was built from the ground up in just two years. It strains the imagination to claim the reconstruction of a 250-foot span should take more than three years."

The project was first announced in 2005 by MassHighway, but both Newburyport and Amesbury's mayoral and council leadership has almost completely turned over since then.

When the project was brought back before local officials at the Amesbury hearing this summer, it caught many of them off guard. MassHighway sent engineers to Town Hall to detail the project, but the town's mayor and all but one of its municipal councilors did not attend. No Newburyport leaders attended the posted hearing.

Connell said if he can arrange a new meeting with MassHighway, he will extend an invitation to all neighboring communities, including Amesbury, Salisbury, Rowley, Newbury and West Newbury. Elected leaders, as well as the state representatives and legislators of those communities, will also be invited, Connell said.

The Hines bridge serves as a critical path between local communities, as well as a gateway to the city, Connell said. Closing it for that length of time will cause more difficult commutes for employees in the city — including the 2,000 workers in the industrial park — and those residents who want to visit friends and neighbors in the surrounding towns. It could also affect mutual aid reinforcement from surrounding public safety departments, Connell said.

Todd Baltich, owner of Leary's Fine Wine and Spirits on Merrimac Street, also voiced his concern to councilors about the length of construction and the impact it would have on his business.

"Leary's will be severely impacted by the closing of the bridge," Baltich said.

During the closure of the Chain Bridge, business at the shop severely dropped by 22 percent for that one year, Baltich said. The shop can't sustain that same loss again for three years, he said.

The city supports the re-construction project and repairs to the infrastructure, but it must be done quicker, Connell said.

"There's a lot of impact," Connell said. "It has to happen in a reasonable time."

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