Concord City Council approves Sewalls Falls Bridge replacement

Last modified: 3/11/2014 10:52:44 PM
Liz Blanchard doesn’t sit on the Concord City Council anymore, but that didn’t stop her from speaking up during last night’s meeting on replacing the Sewalls Falls Bridge.

“Let’s get on with it and do it,” the former Ward 1 councilor told the current members. Blanchard didn’t seek re-election this fall, but she had been in her seat since 2002 and had served on an early-2000s committee to discuss the bridge’s future.

The council got on with it. Its 15 members voted unanimously last night to replace the 100-year-old bridge, a long-awaited decision in a conversation that’s been going on since the mid-1990s.

Federal money will cover $8 million of the planned $10 million construction project, and the city will cover the remaining 20 percent of the bill.

At the recommendation of City Engineer Ed Roberge and engineering firm McFarland Johnson, the council chose a plan for a 400-foot structural steel girder bridge – the cheapest of four options presented last night. This style of bridge would be the most cost-effective both to build and to maintain, Roberge said.

“What concerns us is the long-term sustainability,” Roberge said.

More attractive options, including a bridge similar in style to the existing one, would add to the cost significantly.

“They’re very aesthetic, they’re quite nice,” Roberge said. “It raises the cost level, not just the capital costs up front, but also the long-term costs.”

Last year, engineers found the one-lane bridge safe only for passenger vehicles. Ambulances stopped driving over the bridge in August when the city reduced its weight limit to 3 tons, a change that has increased emergency response times to East Concord, Roberge has said.

The bridge is now inspected every month.

“Ambulances and fire trucks can’t get across there now,” At-Large Councilor Fred Keach said.

The city wrote the bridge into its capital improvement plan in 1996, and the state began considering options for the Sewalls Falls Bridge in 1999.

“People ask why it took so long to have the bridge rebuilt, for one, and also the cost,” At-Large Councilor Mark Coen said last night.

In 2006, the council voted to rehabilitate the existing bridge and build a new one-lane bridge beside it, and in 2011, the state turned management of the project over to the city.

But in 2012, a study found the bridge in worse shape than expected, and the plan changed. The councilors voted early last year to tear the bridge down and replace it with a new structure. To use federal money for the project, Concord needed the state Division of Historical Resources to sign off on the project.

That last piece fell into place in October, when state and city officials signed a memo that finally allowed the project to move forward. The history of the 100-year-old steel truss bridge should be documented, the memo states, but that shouldn’t block its removal.

While some councilors questioned a timetable for construction, which will not be completed until 2016, McFarland Johnson engineer Tom Kendrick told them that schedule allows the city to complete its ongoing environmental review and stay within its price estimates.

“We selected the 18-month timeframe, which should result in the lowest total cost,” Kendrick said.

Construction would start in April 2015.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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