Sewalls Falls Bridge replacement project delayed
The Sewalls Falls Bridge won’t be coming down as soon as expected.
The federal government hasn’t yet granted the necessary approval to tear down and replace the 1915-era bridge over the Merrimack River.
Because the steel truss bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and the replacement project is federally funded, it’s subject to a historic preservation review. And it’s taking longer than city officials anticipated while some residents fight to preserve the bridge.
To minimize damage to historic places, the federal government is required to review all options and collect public input about the project. That had been completed years ago for a plan to rehabilitate the Sewalls Falls Bridge and build another one-lane bridge alongside it. After the city council voted in February to remove and replace the bridge, the process began again. It could delay construction for as long as a year, said City Engineer Ed Roberge.
“We had hoped to be well into final design at this point, but we’re not,” Roberge said.
The Federal Highway Administration is overseeing the project and works with the state Division of Historical Resources to complete the historical review process. Ultimately, local highway administration officials can grant approval.
The historic preservation review, known as Section 106, allows any resident or group to weigh in on the project and attend meetings.
The four “consulting parties” to the Sewalls Falls Bridge project include local historian Jim Garvin, two other Concord residents and a Michigan man who runs a website about historic bridges.
Garvin, a former state architectural historian, said he’s fighting to preserve the bridge because the project isn’t just about improving safety and traffic flow. Historic truss bridges are being torn down across the country, and they are “endangered historical resources,” he said. The Sewalls Falls Bridge was designed by engineer and former Concord mayor John Storrs. Garvin became involved because he thinks federal law requires preservation if possible.
“We are losing a tremendous and a tremendously important portion of our engineering legacy as a nation,” he said.
Garvin’s involvement in the project began more than a decade ago – the state Department of Transportation began studying options for the bridge in 1999. After years of engineering work and public meetings, the Concord City Council approved a plan in 2006 to rehabilitate the existing bridge and build a new, one-lane bridge alongside it. In 2011, the project hadn’t yet begun and the state turned its management over to city officials.
An engineering study completed last year indicated that the bridge was in worse condition than expected, and the city council voted last August to review all options for rehabilitating or replacing the bridge.
Additional studies showed that preserving the bridge would be costly, Roberge told the city council in February. He recommended replacing the bridge to improve safety and traffic flow while avoiding long-term maintenance costs. The council voted unanimously to replace the bridge. The federal government will cover 80 percent of the $10 million project.
It takes about 15 months to plan and design a new bridge, Roberge said. Construction was set to begin in early 2015, but the Section 106 process has delayed the design phase. Work now won’t begin before the middle or end of 2015, depending on the outcome of the Section 106 process.
“Again, we respect the process,” Roberge said. “We were going through the process. And at times, it takes time and hopefully we can resolve the issues.”
Garvin is arguing that Section 106 should halt the bridge’s replacement, though he acknowledges he may not succeed. The review is required under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
“I don’t think I’m going to win my argument that the bridge needs to be preserved and can be preserved,” he said.
As a historian for the state, Garvin had participated in meetings and advocated for building a one-lane bridge alongside a rehabilitated Sewalls Falls Bridge. Now, he’s reminding officials of a second law that may require the bridge’s preservation: The Department of Transportation Act of 1966 requires preservation, Garvin said, “if there is a feasible and prudent alternative to its removal.”
At the last historical review meeting, he raised those points and said a federal representative listened by telephone from Washington, D.C.
“So my assertions right along are that it’s been proven . . . that it is technically possible to preserve the bridge,” he said. “Both laws require the preservation of the bridge under these circumstances. And we will see where this ends up.”
Another consulting party to the Section 106 process is Nathan Holth of DeWitt, Mich., who runs a website about historic bridges, photographs bridges across the country and advocates for bridge preservation. Holth wrote in his request to become a consulting party for the Sewalls Falls Bridge that he’s been involved in the Section 106 process for other bridge projects.
Concord residents Roy Schweiker and Audra Klumb are also consulting parties. Neither resident could be reached yesterday afternoon.
In an email providing input on the project, Schweiker suggested that at least part of the bridge could be preserved on nearby dry land for visitors to learn about its history.
Klumb lives on Sewalls Falls Road, according to the Section 106 documents, and asked at an April review meeting whether the design requirements could change to make it more feasible to preserve the bridge. She asked if the city could reduce speed and weight limits, according to meeting minutes.
Jamie Sikora of the Federal Highway Administration said at that meeting that exceptions are possible, but must be approved. Reached yesterday, Sikora said he’s not authorized to speak with the media about the project.
Roberge said he’ll continue meeting with the consulting parties, and he’s confident that the bridge replacement will proceed as approved by the city council.
“We always like to come up with some sort of consensus agreement,” he said. “We don’t seem to be there yet, and that’s why this process has extended on longer in terms of just trying to come up with a group consensus.”
But Garvin said it’s worth fighting to save the nearly 100-year-old bridge in East Concord.
“So that’s why I’m putting myself through the wringer and going to these meetings,” Garvin said. “It’s not something that’s pleasant for anybody really to be in those meetings . . . but you have to do it if you feel that it’s a serious matter.”