Shaheen, Kuster tour Sewalls Falls Bridge and call for its replacement

Last modified: 9/14/2013 12:03:44 AM
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster visited the Sewalls Falls Bridge yesterday to express concern about its condition, which Concord officials said is deteriorating while they await federal approval to replace it.

“Hopefully we can help move it along,” Kuster said, as she stood on the steel truss bridge.

City Engineer Ed Roberge led Shaheen, Kuster, Mayor Jim Bouley and other officials on a tour of the bridge across the Merrimack River yesterday morning and showed them its “levels of deterioration.” After holes were found in the bridge this summer, Roberge said the city spent about $30,000 on repairs. Only passenger vehicles that weigh less than 3 tons are now permitted to cross the bridge; that limit increases response times for ambulances traveling to emergencies in East Concord.

The city council voted earlier this year to replace rather than rehabilitate the nearly 100-year-old structure, but the federal government has not yet completed its historical review of the bridge or allowed the city to begin designing a new one.

Shaheen and Kuster sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation on the city’s behalf in July, urging officials to complete their study. Federal funds will cover 80 percent of the roughly $10 million bridge replacement project, and the government must complete a historic preservation review to minimize damage to historic places. That review with the state Division of Historical Resources has delayed the replacement project.

Design work cannot begin without that final approval, even though “the financing is all there,” said City Manager Tom Aspell.

“There are significant issues with the safety of the bridge,” Shaheen said yesterday. “Hopefully we’ll get that decision (from the Department of Transportation) very soon. Congresswoman Kuster and I have weighed in with the Department of Transportation to urge them to move expeditiously so we can replace this bridge as soon as possible.”

Bouley thanked Shaheen and Kuster yesterday for visiting the bridge and working to assist the city.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

Yesterday morning, officials walked underneath the approach to the bridge on the west side of the Merrimack River. Roberge pointed to deteriorating steel and said the bridge is becoming a safety concern.

“There’s a certain amount of lifetime movement on the steel before it really becomes brittle,” he said. “It’s like a paper clip. You start bending that, and all the sudden it breaks. That’s the issue that we have here.”

Bridges are typically inspected every other year, Roberge said, but officials are now inspecting the bridge every month to determine whether it is safe for vehicles. It is a nonredundant structure, Roberge said, meaning the entire bridge could collapse if one part fails.

“We’ve got a public safety issue, we’ve got a major inconvenience issue, the facilities and the trucks and the school buses and the ambulances have to take a longer way around,” Kuster said. “If you add five or 10 minutes to an ambulance ride, you’re talking about a serious public safety issue in addition to risk of injury from the bridge, actually, at this point. . . . So we need to urge the government to move as expeditiously as possible.”

Shaheen added that the bridge project is an example of much-needed infrastructure improvement.

“Beyond public safety, which is the top priority, for the city to grow, this has to be dealt with,” she said. “And this is the kind of project that we’ve got throughout New Hampshire and all throughout the country; we’ve got red-list bridges that need to be addressed, and we’ve got to start investing in our infrastructure.”

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

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