Concord City Council to vote on Sewalls Falls Bridge replacement
From left, Concord City Engineer Ed Roberge, City Manager Tom Aspell, Mayor Jim Bouley, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster tour the Sewalls Falls Bridge on Friday, September 13, 2013. The bridge, which opened in 1915, is a one-lane passageway that has fallen into a state of disrepair, and after years of planning, local officials are working to replace it in the coming months. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
The city council will vote tonight on whether to replace the Sewalls Falls Bridge.
With one eye on its 100-year-old steel trusses over the Merrimack River, City Engineer Ed Roberge will recommend building a new bridge in place of the aging one. Tonight’s decision could be the final step toward the long-awaited $10 million construction project, which would be paid for in part with $8 million in federal money. The city would cover the remaining 20 percent of the bill.
The existing bridge is a problem for both public safety and the city’s finances, Roberge said.
“We don’t have the dollars to maintain the condition of the existing bridge, and this certainly puts the bridge in a state of good repair,” he said.
Last year, engineers found the one-lane bridge only safe for passenger vehicles, and ambulances stopped traveling over the bridge in August when its weight limit was reduced to 3 tons. The switch has increased emergency response times to East Concord, Roberge said.
The city has been inspecting the bridge on a monthly basis.
“Having the bridge replaced is a great step in terms of that public safety and the emergency response conditions in the northeast corner of Concord,” Roberge said.
A report from engineering firm McFarland Johnson outlines four options for replacing the bridge, along with their anticipated costs. Both the firm and Roberge have recommended the cheapest option – a structural steel girder bridge that will take 18 months to build. This style of bridge is also significantly less expensive to take care of over the next 25 years, Roberge said.
“We wanted to place the emphasis on future (operation and maintenance) so that the bridge type is as sustainable as possible,” he said.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015.
Mayor Jim Bouley echoed Roberge’s comments, saying the proposal seems like an appropriate one. But he encouraged public comment at tonight’s meeting.
“It seems like a very reasonable recommendation based upon the years of discussion that we’ve had about this bridge,” Bouley said.
The state began looking at the Sewalls Falls Bridge in 1999, and in 2006, the Concord City Council voted to rehabilitate the existing bridge and build a new one-lane bridge beside it. The state turned management of the project over to the city in 2011.
But a 2012 study showed the bridge was in worse shape than expected, and the council voted in February 2013 to tear it down and replace it.
The city had to wait for the go-ahead from the state Division of Historical Resources, a requirement from the federal government, and the bridge attracted attention from New Hampshire’s delegation in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster both wrote U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in July to ask for the bridge’s replacement, and they visited the bridge together in September for a tour with city officials.
State and city officials signed a memo in October that finally allowed the project to move forward. A product of the historical review process, the memo states officials should document the bridge’s history but not block its demolition.
When the council discusses the new bridge again tonight, Bouley said he would like to hear more about the estimated 18-month timetable for its construction.
“Obviously this is more than just a transportation issue,” Bouley said. “This is a public safety issue at this point, and ideally the quicker we could get it done, the better for the community.”
City Manager Tom Aspell said questions about the project’s environmental impact and how to preserve the historic Sewalls Falls Bridge could also come up tonight. But if the city council clears this last hurdle with a “yes” vote on a new bridge, Aspell said the final product will mean a dramatic change in east Concord.
“It’ll be a very different bridge,” Aspell said.
The meeting will start at 7 p.m. in council chambers.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)