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Sewalls Falls Bridge reopens, but only for passenger cars

Sewalls Falls Bridge.

Sewalls Falls Bridge.

The Sewalls Falls Bridge reopened yesterday afternoon after repairs. Soon, it will only be open to passenger cars.

“We’re waiting on permanent signage for the down-posting of the bridge,” said Deputy City Manager for Development Carlos Baia. “We anticipate downgrading it to 3 tons, or passenger vehicles only.”

That means ambulances will have to find another way across the Merrimack River to East Concord, which fire Chief Dan Andrus said could triple emergency response times.

Ambulances now only take three to four minutes to travel from the Manor Fire Station in Penacook to the area east of the Sewalls Falls Bridge. Once the bridge is closed to ambulances, Andrus said the ambulance from the Heights Fire Station will be sent to East Concord and will take about 10 minutes to get there on Mountain Road.

“We typically shoot for response times (of) 80 percent under five minutes,” Andrus said. “And response times in some areas could increase up to 10 minutes, which is a long time to wait for emergency services.”

Andrus said the city’s ambulances, which weigh more than 7 tons, made 73 trips across the Sewalls Falls Bridge last year. This year, there have been 49 ambulance trips across the bridge.

Baia said the new load limits will be posted in the next few weeks.

Though more than one car often travels on the one-lane bridge at a time, Baia said that won’t be a problem. The bridge’s weight limit has decreased in recent years, and is now 10 tons.

“It would be the way the bridge has operated throughout the last few months or years, with the exception that we’d be changing the tonnage of vehicles allowed,” he said.

The bridge was closed for repairs for four days this week, after deteriorating concrete was found on the elevated road span on its west side. Baia told the city council this week that the bridge’s approach span was in worse condition than expected. But the repairs were finished yesterday, and the bridge reopened by late afternoon.

After years of delay in rehabilitating the bridge, the city council voted in February to tear it down and build a new, two-lane bridge.

Now that project has been delayed, as the city seeks approval from the Federal Highway Administration. The impacts of removing the century-old bridge must be reviewed, as 80 percent of the project is funded by the federal government.

City Engineer Ed Roberge told the city council Monday that he’s been instructed to provide more information to the federal government before the review can be complete. Construction had been set to begin in 2014. It now won’t begin before 2015, Roberge said.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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