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A bridge plan gone too far?

Former Cohasset selectman Ralph Dormitzer led a group of neighbors opposing reconstruction of the Cunningham Bridge.
Former Cohasset selectman Ralph Dormitzer led a group of neighbors opposing reconstruction of the Cunningham Bridge.Jamie Cotten for The Boston Globe

COHASSET – Cunningham Bridge itself is nothing fancy — a basic structure of steel, concrete, and stone crossing the Little Harbor inlet at a sharp angle just down the road from the town’s popular Sandy Beach. But the view is spectacular — of an open sweep of the Atlantic Ocean — and the surrounding homes are some of the priciest and most dramatic real estate in this posh seaside community.

The state says the aging, town-owned bridge needs to be replaced, and it wants to build Cohasset a brand new one for $4.3 million. It’s an offer other communities would grab with glee.

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But not everyone in Cohasset welcomes the gift.

“We don’t want to sound ungrateful,” said selectmen chair Steve Gaumer, who’s among those with concerns about the state’s largesse. “But it’s as if your neighbor showed up with a pile of wood and a power saw on a Saturday morning and said, ‘Great news, I’m going to rebuild your deck.’ You’d naturally have some questions. Like what’s the design, and how long do I have to live without my deck?”

Gaumer is worried that the state wants to close the existing bridge and detour traffic in a wide loop during the scheduled 10-month construction, slated to start a year from now. The detour would double emergency vehicle response time to popular Sandy Beach from 4½ to nine minutes and would greatly inconvenience residents and tourists, he said.

And Gaumer shares neighbors’ frets that the new bridge, as proposed, would be too conspicuous for the scenic site.

“Cunningham Bridge isn’t that beautiful, but it’s low-profile,” he said.

The neighbors, led by former selectmen Ralph Dormitzer, wrote to the state Department of Transportation in March to express their displeasure.

The bridge is more than “simply a utilitarian structure to convey people and cars efficiently across the Little Harbor inlet,” the letter said. “It is, by virtue of its location and unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean and Little Harbor, a place to pause and appreciate the beauty of the vistas it uniquely provides.“

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Those vistas, and the need to slow down and appreciate them, would be ruined by the state’s proposed design, the letter said. The state plan would make the bridge three feet wider, give it a more gradual approach, replacing what’s now basically an abrupt right-angle turn at the inlet, and replace its rustic-looking guard rail with one neighbors view as an industrial metal barrier.

Others in town, however, are confident the details can be worked out and are eager to take the state’s offer.

“The state is offering to provide us with a $4 million bridge,” said Selectman Kevin McCarthy. “I think we should take advantage of it.”

Brian Joyce, the town’s engineer and director of project management, agreed.

“To get federal tax funds back is rare; the town not having to pay $4 million is a good thing,” he said. “If we had to spend $4 million of our own for that bridge — well, I can think of lots of other ways to use that money, lots of infrastructure needs in town.”

Joyce added that new safety standards dictate most of the features that residents found objectionable in the state’s design But he said state officials have been responsive to residents’ criticism and scheduled a second public meeting May 25 to go over the plans.

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Town Manager Chris Senior said he’s optimistic the town can work with the state on a final plan that “melds safety and scenery.”

“There’s no question” that the bridge eventually needs to be replaced, Senior said. “It’s a question of when and how.”

Senior said the town was surprised that the state was ready to move ahead with the project, and acknowledged that its attention was focused elsewhere. “It came up on us rather quickly,” he said.

The 65-foot span that now crosses Little Harbor was built in 1962, replacing a bridge from the 1890s, Senior said.

The bridge is named for Edward Cunningham, one of Cohasset’s first summer residents in the mid-1800s who was murdered in his Milton home in 1889, according to a local history.

About seven years ago — that was several town managers ago, and current officials say they don’t have records of the exact timing — Cohasset asked the state to consider putting Cunningham Bridge in the Transportation Improvement Program, known as TIP. The bridge was getting old and inevitably would need work, and the town wanted to see if it could get in on the federal money available for such projects.

Municipalities compete to get on TIP, a prioritized list of road, bridge, bike, pedestrian and public transportation projects slated to move ahead with the help of federal funds.

The latest list, for 2016-2019, comes to $4.5 billion, and includes everything from intersection improvements in Brockton and Weymouth, to road resurfacing in Plymouth — and Cunningham Bridge in Cohasset.

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Department of Transportation spokesman Ryan Grannan-Doll said the bridge made the list because state inspectors determined it was “structurally deficient.” He said his agency has been working with Cohasset on a replacement project since 2014.

Plans originally called for simply replacing the top of the bridge, but further examination showed the granite abutments didn’t meet new earthquake resistance requirements, so they had to be replaced, too. And the bridge had to be widened to meet modern traffic safety standards.

As a result, a quick three-month job became a major 10-month one, much to the distress of area residents.

Cohasset isn’t the only place to get upset about TIP projects.

In one memorable case in 2014, Harwich voted to turn down $4 million in improvements to Route 124. Opponents cheered that they had protected “one of Cape Cod’s prettiest scenic roads” from a state plan that called for widened lanes, bike paths, and sidewalks.

Lincoln Hooper, Harwich’s highway director, was less pleased. He said in a recent interview that his town probably will spend up to $1 million of its own money on just basic repairs to the road.

“Taking somebody else’s money always comes with strings attached, and we used to be able to work around those strings,” Hooper said, adding that Harwich had received close to $10 million for TIP projects since 2000.

But he said the current rules mean Harwich has “essentially abandoned going after TIP funds because they come with complete-streets standards — sidewalks and bike lanes — and quite frankly there are no local roads left down here where . . . [imposing those standards] would fit the character of the area.”

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Cohasset officials hope they’ll be able to compromise with the state on design and timing of the bridge construction.

“It’s nice to have [the state] come in and offer to make things work out financially and replace the bridge,” Gaumer said. “We just want some input.”


Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com