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New Whittier Bridge promises smoother ride

The Whittier Bridge, a landmark for travelers on Interstate 95 just south of the New Hampshire line, was built in 1951.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file 2011

The Whittier Bridge, a landmark for travelers on Interstate 95 just south of the New Hampshire line, was built in 1951.

Vacation and truck traffic should have an easier time getting to and from New Hampshire and Maine beginning in late 2016, thanks to a three-year, $292 million improvement project for the Whittier Bridge and Interstate 95 . Despite the army of cranes, barges, and earthmovers already at work, leaders in Amesbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury are optimistic about getting through the construction unscathed.

“I would say that overall it’s gone pretty well, having a major, major construction project right through the middle of our communities,” said Amesbury Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III. “Communications-wise, we’ve had some bumps in the road, but the bridge project crew and MassDOT have worked really hard’’ to resolve them, he said.

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“There are no impacts at this point,” said Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington.

The massive project focuses on the obsolete, deteriorated John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge, built in 1951, which carries about 70,000 vehicles a day over the Merrimack River on six lanes of I-95 between Amesbury and Newburyport. The replacement bridge will consist of two parallel spans, one for northbound traffic and one for southbound, with an increase to four travel lanes in each direction.

The new design for the Whittier Memorial Bridge.

Mass. Department of Transportation, Highway Division

The new design for the Whittier Memorial Bridge.

The northbound side will be built first, next to the old bridge. It will be the wider of the new spans by about 24 feet, so it can carry six lanes of traffic — three in each direction — while the old bridge is demolished and the southbound span built. When both sides are done, the extra space will be a shared-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians. That’s a novelty for an interstate bridge in Massachusetts, and an ardent desire of officials hoping to better connect the three towns.

“This bridge is a gateway to our region,” said Kezer. “From what we’re seeing, this new bridge will make a statement about the beauty and quality of life in our region of Massachusetts.”

The wider highway and reconfigured ramps also should make for an easier merge with travelers on Interstate 495, which meets I-95 in Salisbury about a mile north of the bridge in an interchange that is often a major sticking point and one that many drivers find intimidating.

Under the state Department of Transportation’s accelerated bridge program, the project’s completion is scheduled for the second half of 2016; the lead contractor is a joint venture of Chicago-based Walsh Construction and McCourt Construction of Boston.

About 400 workers should be on the job at the project’s peak, said Frank DePaola, administrator of MassDOT’s Highway Division. Already, wide swaths of woods have been leveled alongside the highway, both for the roadway’s new alignment and for access and staging areas for the construction crews. Grading and infrastructure work has started, and the median strip along I-95 north of the river is lined with Jersey barriers in preparation. Work also has begun on piers in the river that will support the northbound span, he said.

“In dollar volume and length, this is probably the biggest project of the accelerated bridge program because of the unique challenges . . . besides being over a river the size of the Merrimack, being the major north-south interstate corridor for New England,” he said.

The new spans will have steel arches and cables in “a modern take on the suspension bridge,” said DePaola, an engineer. “What that does is, the cables can be smaller, and the view is actually clearer,” he said. “It’s a cleaner-looking design, it’s efficient as far as it uses less steel, and aesthetically people like them.”

Rust and corrosion have taken their toll on the old Whittier Bridge; the new one will have a modern powder-coated finish that is longer-lasting and more corrosion-resistant than traditional liquid paint, DePaola said. “It won’t be like the Tobin Bridge,’’ he said, where “by the time we finish painting, we have to start the next paint job.”

The new bridge also will have energy-efficient lighting, possibly including a color-changing LED array similar to the one that has been a popular feature of Boston’s Zakim Bridge, DePaola said.

The project also includes widening and realignment of roughly 4 miles of I-95, between just north of Exit 57 in Newburyport and nearly to the New Hampshire line, to improve safety and accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic loads in the future. Plans call for the reconstruction or replacement of eight other highway bridges in that stretch as well.

“The Merrimack River through there is a very challenging site,” DePaola noted. “I’ll begin with something people aren’t really that familiar with — it is apparently one of the habitats of the Atlantic sturgeon, which is a rare fish. It actually restricts the time’’ that crews can be in the water, he said, “doing construction of the supporting piers of the new bridge.”

For local authorities, the largest remaining issue is placement and design of a new barrier wall to shield residents of Laurel Road in Newburyport from the sights and sounds of the highway.

“We know there are going to be 40,000 more cars using this bridge; we know that it’s closer to residents; we know that they’re adding lanes of highway. So I think they deserve to have a barrier between them and the work site and the future traffic,” said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday.

“We thought it was actually going to be easier to do, instead of moving this old, dilapidated wall, to just build a new one,” Holaday said. “Unfortunately it isn’t that easy, because this potentially could trigger a different level of review from the federal government, as 80 percent of the funding for this project is federal funds.”

Negotiations with state and federal officials are ongoing. A similar issue exists for residents of Rabbit Road in Salisbury.

A handful of residents off Main Street in Amesbury also have complained about likely problems from the construction work, including air conditioners filling up with blowing sand and dust.

“The challenge we have currently is a big, dusty construction project cutting through various neighborhoods, and so there’s the impacts of that, dust control, noise,” Kezer said. “It’s unavoidable that there are going to be problems. It’s how well do people respond to them that is the key measure.”

Another concern for Salisbury officials is a municipal water source adjacent to the project corridor. “We’re making sure they take all the precautions,” said Salisbury’s Department of Public Works director, Donald Levesque. “We have resolved that, and they’ve been very accommodating.”

The state has pledged to keep six lanes of I-95 flowing as much as possible during the project. More than 200 people have signed up for weekly e-mail alerts about lane closures and other changes, DePaola said. Electronic message boards and traffic-monitoring systems are or will be in place to keep both drivers and local officials informed, he said.

But long before last summer’s groundbreaking for the project, local officials were concerned about traffic nightmares, and they’re not relaxing. “I’m particularly concerned about what’s going to happen next summer as the weather gets better,” said Holaday.

Both vacation traffic and construction activity will be at their peak when crews begin the temporary shift of all six lanes from the old Whittier Bridge to the new northbound span.

When the Hines Bridge, which carries Amesbury’s Main Street over the Merrimack, was closed by construction for a couple of years, Holaday said, “the overflow traffic that came through on Route 113 into the city was really at times absolutely overwhelming and very difficult.

“We need to ensure that we’re coordinating signaling, and if we need people out there at peak times to help with traffic flow.”

In general, though, Holaday said, state and project officials “have been listening and have been responsive, and I assume that’s something that will continue as we go forward.”

“There is a plan in place during heavy weekend traffic and holiday traffic, that the construction crews get completely out of the way and open up all the lanes to keep traffic flowing,” Kezer said. “There are times they need to get their work done, and that will cause some restrictions, cause some backups,” he said, but plans are in place to address traffic jams.

The Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce & Industry tries to keep its members informed about the project, but president Ann Ormond said she hasn’t heard that much about it yet.

“The one thing I have heard from a couple of people, which I think is interesting, from businesses up on Storey Avenue . . . is ‘OK, so it gets backed up and they get off at Exit 56 or 57, they’re going to cut through by my business and potentially I could get more business,’ ” Ormond said. “It would be an interesting thing to look at down the road — did that happen?”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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