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Concord clears major hurdle for Sewalls Falls Bridge replacement

Carl Snyder from CHA Consulting Inc. climbs down from one of the trusses of the Sewalls Falls Bridge after visually inspecting the area in this file photo from 2012. This week, Concord officials were able to clear an obstacle in the plans to replace the Sewalls Falls Bridge.  

(Brad Vest/Monitor Staff)

Carl Snyder from CHA Consulting Inc. climbs down from one of the trusses of the Sewalls Falls Bridge after visually inspecting the area in this file photo from 2012. This week, Concord officials were able to clear an obstacle in the plans to replace the Sewalls Falls Bridge. (Brad Vest/Monitor Staff)

Concord officials have cleared a stumbling block in plans to replace the Sewalls Falls Bridge.

A key document signed by state and city officials this week allows the city to move forward and design a new bridge. The memo states that while the 100-year-old steel truss bridge is historically significant, officials will discuss ways to document its history rather than block its replacement.

That is a “critical milestone” in efforts to replace the aging bridge, Deputy City Manager for Development Carlos Baia wrote in an email to the mayor and city councilors.

City officials had expressed concern this summer that a federal historical review process was taking longer than expected and would delay construction. Engineers also determined that the one-lane bridge over the Merrimack River was deteriorating and only safe for passenger vehicles. Ambulances stopped traveling over the bridge when its weight limit was reduced to 3 tons in August, increasing emergency response times to East Concord.

With this week’s approval from the state Division of Historic Resources and the Federal Highway Administration, City Engineer Ed Roberge said it will be possible to begin construction in 2015 as planned.

“So it’s great news for the city,” said Mayor Jim Bouley. “This was not just an inconvenience, this was really a public safety issue.”

The memo is not a final approval for the project, said Roberge, but an acknowledgement from the state Division of Historical Resources that replacing the bridge is the best course.

The historical review, known as Section 106, is required because the bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and its replacement is federally funded. The $10 million bridge replacement project will include $8 million of federal funding. To minimize damage to historic places, the federal government is required to review all options and collect public input on projects.

While the city waited, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster sought to expedite the process. Shaheen and Kuster wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in July, requesting quick action by the federal government. And they visited the bridge together last month for a tour with city officials.

In statements yesterday, Shaheen and Kuster said they were glad to see progress.

“When I visited the bridge last month it became very clear that this bridge is critical to public safety and also plays an important role supporting the Concord economy,” Shaheen said. “Those facts underscore the need for a quick replacement.”

Bouley, noting that construction could have been delayed until 2016 without this week’s memo, thanked Shaheen for her help.

“The project wouldn’t go forward really without the efforts of Sen. Shaheen,” Bouley said. “She’s been instrumental in working with the city and making sure the Federal Highway (Administration) had all the things they needed and making sure to work with them.”

The city, state and federal governments have been working on options for the bridge for more than a decade. The state Department of Transportation began studying options for the bridge’s future in 1999. The Concord City Council voted in 2006 to rehabilitate the existing bridge and build a new one-lane bridge alongside it. As the project awaited funding, the state turned management of the project over to the city in 2011.

After an engineering study indicated last year that the bridge was in worse condition than expected, the council again reviewed its options and voted in February to tear down and replace it.

Since that time, city officials have been working to receive the necessary state and federal approvals.

“There’s been a lot of cooperation around this project,” Bouley said. “And it’s a long time coming, but there’s a lot of people that really should be recognized and thanked.”

The cultural resources effect memo, signed Monday, acknowledges that the city can tear down the bridge because “the full replacement of the bridge with a larger, unrestricted structure is required” to meet safety goals and standards.

The Section 106 process is not officially complete. Next, the city will work with state and federal officials to develop a formal agreement. At a minimum, Roberge said, the city will document the history of the bridge.

With “a pretty aggressive timetable” for designing the new two-lane bridge, Roberge said construction could begin in early 2015. The design process will include public input.

“We have heard that folks are really interested in what this bridge will look like,” he said. “We’re excited to get started here.”

Further approvals are required before construction begins. But, Baia wrote in his email to the city council this week, “we do not believe that those pose insurmountable obstacles.”

Before construction begins, Roberge said the city will continue to inspect the bridge on a monthly basis.

“We can’t down-post it any lower than 3 tons . . . so our next stop, if the conditions continue to deteriorate, would be essentially to close the bridge,” he said.

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

We should demolish all the remaining historic steel truss bridges left in New Hampshire quickly. Heritage and cultural and environmental concerns are a drag on the economic recovery and should not be a consideration in future projects.

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