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Fore River Bridge project to take a year longer

Matt Bach, 22, fished for striped bass recently near the Fore River Bridge project. He caught and released a 30-incher.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Matt Bach, 22, fished for striped bass recently near the Fore River Bridge project. He caught and released a 30-incher.

Ever so slowly, a new Fore River Bridge is being assembled next to the old, rickety, temporary one that South Shore drivers loathe so much. State transportation officials recently disclosed that problems with a mechanical part of the new span could add another year to the project, delaying its grand opening to 2017.

Until then, drivers on Route 3A will have to bear with the existing bridge, in place now for more than a decade, to travel between Quincy and Weymouth. They have grown accustomed to the noise of steel plates rattling beneath their wheels whenever they cross “the Erector Set,” as it is nicknamed by locals.

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“That temporary bridge has been there longer than it was supposed to be,” said Dave Oliva, chairman of the East Braintree Civic Association. “The thing is a rattletrap now. When you go over it, it’s very loud.”

The temporary bridge was put up in 2002 and opened to traffic in 2003. What was supposed to be a temporary fix has become a fixture on Fore River, and it will remain in use for at least another three years because some sheaves for the new structure were cracked and replacements will have to be made. The sheaves help raise and lower the center span.

Meanwhile, many commuters dread the traffic jams that occur whenever the bridge is opened, as it does hundreds of times a year when the span requires maintenance or when a tanker, barge, or other large vessel needs to pass underneath (see accompanying article). The bridge carries upwards of 32,000 vehicles a day.

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“When the bridge is up or broken, we get a line of traffic down Quincy Avenue,” Oliva said.

The new bridge was supposed to cost approximately $244 million. State transportation officials said the financial impact of the potential yearlong delay has not yet been determined.

Gary Peters, a spokesman for the Fore River Bridge Neighborhood Association, said he is concerned that the delay might increase the final cost. “Time is money,” he said.

Peters said he wishes the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would be more forthcoming with details of the project. “As far as getting information out of them, it’s been a real nightmare,” he said. “We’ve been battling back and forth on this stuff since day one.”

The complaint is echoed by Mike Lang, a member of the East Braintree Civic Association, who says he has been trying to find out how much it cost to tear down the old 1936 bridge and put up the interim span in 2002.

“This is like the Big Dig,” said Lang. “It’s been a fight to get information from them, information that should be available.”

He said he believes that the recent setback will push up the final price tag. “It’s going to jack it way up,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation said cost revisions are still being calculated.

Cracks delay project

State officials say the project has been delayed by discovery of faults in some of eight mechanical sheaves, an important component of the new bridge.

The sheaves, which each cost about $1.4 million, look like giant wheels. Measuring 20 feet in diameter, the sheaves are supposed to work like pulleys to move the midsection of the bridge up and down to allow watercraft to pass underneath.

“The sheaves cracked during fabrication,” Rebecca Cyr, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said in an e-mail. “We are not accepting any work with cracks or ones that show stress or fatigue to the new structure. New ones will need to be made to ensure that quality standards are met.”

State transportation officials declined to say who manufactured the sheaves, where they came from, what happened during the fabrication process, or how many broke. “At this time, the process in how the sheaves cracked has not been identified, and the main focus is on moving the project forward,” Cyr said in her e-mail.

Mayor Susan Kay of Weymouth said she was told that the sheaves were made in Alabama and that the delay would be about 10 months. She said it is better that the problem has been discovered now, rather than later.

“We’re just really glad they found out before installing them,” she said, adding that the delay will give officials more time to plan and prepare for the “horrific” traffic conditions expected when the two lanes of the bridge in each direction are reduced to one during the next phase of construction, when the new structure is connected to the existing approaches.

That phase was originally scheduled to last about four months, from May through September 2015. Due to the delay, no one is sure when it will happen.

Amanda Richard, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said it is too early to say whether that phase will be pushed out to 2016. “MassDOT will provide adequate notice of the traffic diversions when that has been determined,” she said.

Rising costs

The project is funded through the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program, launched in 2008 as an eight-year program. About 80 percent of the Fore River Bridge funding will come from federal grant anticipation notes, which are bonds backed by the future federal grant money. The other 20 percent will come from Massachusetts taxpayers.

MassDOT previously said the bridge must be completed by 2016 in order to use the Accelerated Bridge Program funding, because the program is scheduled to expire that year.

The agency would not say whether the extended construction timeline could present a problem, but Richard acknowledged that the cost of the project could go up.

“The scheduling cost revisions are still underway, and with the delay the cost may increase,” she said in an e-mail. “A fabrication issue with the sheave is what led to the delay. There may be some cost revisions due to the delay.”

The firm in charge of the bridge replacement project is White-Skanska-Koch, a joint venture that includes J.F. White Contracting Co., based in Framingham, and Skanska Koch of Carteret, N.J. According to the project website, White-Skanska-Koch’s bid for the project was $244 million. The MassDOT contract included a $26 million allowance for “items such as traffic police details, contractor incentives, and contingencies,” which brought the total contract to $272 million.

Skanska declined to comment for this article, referring the Globe’s inquiry to the Department of Transportation.

Peters said he wants better answers. “If the funding is going to expire in 2016, that’s going to be a problem,” he said. “It’s frightening.”

Longer life for Erector Set

The Transportation Department says the existing bridge is safe and inspected regularly, but “is rapidly reaching the end of its useful life.” The new one should last at least 75 years, the agency says.

The bridge being built is a vertical-lift type, so it will operate like the existing bridge: Its middle section will move up and down to allow oil tankers, tugboats, and other vessels to pass through underneath.

Not everyone likes the appearance of the vertical-lift bridge. Peters was among many residents who advocated a smaller replacement span with a lower profile, like the old Fore River bridge built in 1936 that operated like a drawbridge and has since been demolished.

“When you build larger bridges, you have the potential for larger problems,” said Peters, who lives in Weymouth. “This thing is ginormous.”

Meanwhile, steel for the new lifting span of the structure has been delivered to the site, and work continues on the towers. A fender and dolphin system is being installed to protect the bridge from ship collisions. Motorists can already see the new bridge emerging from the water alongside the existing one. When the lifting span is finished, it will be loaded onto a barge that will set it into position.

Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan of Braintree said that replacing the Fore River Bridge is a big undertaking and that he is not surprised that the work will take longer than expected. “When you have a project of this size and scope, there are going to be delays,” he said.

Regardless of the delay, Rick Newcomb — owner of Fore River Fishing Tackle, a bait and jewelry shop near the rotary at the foot of the bridge on the Quincy side — said he sees the project as a positive thing.

“This is something we’ve needed for a long time,” he said. “We’re loving that it’s getting done.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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