Editorial: Bridge must be replaced as quickly as possible
One day last week Concord motorists were forced to hit the brakes coming from and going toward the Sewalls Falls bridge. They carefully maneuvered around a clutch of workers fixing a patch of roadway and then (Phew! That was close!) hit the gas and went on their way. But that didn’t fix everything. To the contrary, workers found even more urgent repair needs. This week, the bridge will be closed for four days while more work is done, forcing drivers to find alternative routes.
Taxpayers have been throwing good money after bad for years. The bridge is in terrible shape. No secret there – it’s been on the state’s list of bad bridges for a long, long time. The rusty, twisted guardrails spook those drivers who haven’t grown accustomed to them. The weight load was recently downgraded from 14 tons to 10, preventing the use of the bridge by city emergency vehicles, and another downgrade is possible.
The steel trusses need repair and repainting. Both abutments have extensive cracking.
Here’s how a recent report by city and state officials described the part of the bridge you don’t see from behind the wheel:
“There have been significant problems with the cut granite pier. A considerable number of stones have cracked, shifted and/or fallen into the river, thereby compromising the overall integrity of the pier. Although New Hampshire Department of Transportation Bridge Maintenance forces have performed repairs, these are not considered as permanently addressing concerns with the pier. The existing substructure elements are founded on spread footings placed on original soil at the excavated depths. Piles supporting the substructure were not utilized and the foundation design does not meet current protective scour design standards.”
In other words, yikes.
The state first started thinking about improving the Sewalls Falls bridge in 1994 – a year you might remember as a time when Bill Clinton was in the White House, Forrest Gump was playing at the movies and O.J. Simpson was accused of murder.
Budget realities have slowed the process over the years, as has a change of plans for the bridge. But the time for action is now.
Until recently, the plan called for two spans, each going in one direction: one would be the existing Sewalls Falls bridge, saved and rehabilitated; the second would be a new bridge built alongside it. But in February, faced with a new assessment of the cost of fixing and maintaining the old bridge, the Concord City Council wisely reconsidered.
Removing the bridge and replacing it with something modern, safe, cost-effective and, dare we say, better looking, is the right way to go.
Trouble is, switching gears has triggered a whole new round of government bureaucracy. Because the bridge, built in 1915, is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and because the replacement project will be federally funded, it’s subject to a historic preservation review.
Didn’t that happen years ago? Yes, of course, but that’s when the plan was to save the bridge. The new plan, to replace it, means that work must be done all over again. According to City Engineer Ed Roberge, it could delay construction for as long as a year.
This can’t possibly be the best course, for taxpayers or for motorists. The debate – save the bridge versus replace the bridge – has been had. The public has weighed in. The city council made a difficult but smart decision.
Surely the feds – perhaps with some heat from New Hampshire’s congressional delegation – could be convinced that speed is of the essence here. The Sewalls Falls bridge, which isn’t getting any younger or safer, should be replaced as quickly as possible.