Highway Officials to Close Drawbridge

Four-Day Shutdown Begins Tuesday to Repair, Replace Concrete Decking; Alert Goes Out to Island Motorists


Against the backdrop of a visit last week from the Massachusetts Highway Commissioner and pledges of greater cooperation with the Island community, state highway officials announced abruptly this week that the Lagoon Pond drawbridge will be closed to traffic for four days while repairs are made to the aging structure.

Mass Highway communications director Jon Carlisle confirmed that the state will close the bridge from 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31, through 7 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 3. Large portions of the concrete decking are slated for removal and replacement. Mr. Carlisle said he did not anticipate extended closure of the bridge, which among other things is a main artery to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

The announcement came only days after Massachusetts Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky visited the Island to announce the state's final decision to replace the bridge in two phases, first building a temporary bridge alongside the existing structure and then constructing a permanent replacement bridge. Speaking at a joint meeting with the Lagoon Pond drawbridge committee at the Martha's Vineyard Commission on Friday, Ms. Paiewonsky also addressed the concerns of critics who have argued against the temporary bridge plan. She pledged a new era in cooperation between the state highway department and the Island community.

Construction of the temporary bridge is not slated to begin until next fall at the earliest, but the state plans some immediate repairs to the existing bridge. Ms. Paiewonsky made no mention of the bridge closure at the meeting Friday.

Mr. Carlisle said the decision to close the bridge was made on Monday by NEL Corporation, the state contractor that will perform the repairs. He said Mass Highway had no previous indication that the bridge would need to be shut down during the repairs.

Reacting to the announcement, representatives from Island emergency services said they expect a significant impact on traffic across the Island, especially at the blinker light intersection in Oak Bluffs. Drivers and commuters are encouraged to leave early to allow for delays.

"The bridge closure will affect the whole Island, so people are going to have to take it into consideration every time they drive somewhere," Tisbury police chief Theodore (Ted) Saulnier said on Wednesday. "We have a contingency plan that already includes a bridge closure, and for Tisbury, that means an extra six minutes on an ambulance run to the hospital."

The drawbridge was closed twice last year - once in May and again in September - due to mechanical failures in the lifting mechanism. Both closures lasted for over four hours and snarled traffic at the blinker light intersection. Chief Saulnier expects the same next week.

"It's going to be a mess at certain times, so everyone is going to have to leave early if they use that intersection," he said. "If they can, they should use alternate routes."

Since discussion about a replacement for the bridge began several years ago, state highway officials have pushed the long-term plan for a two-bridge solution. Estimated costs for both bridges are about $5 million for the temporary bridge and $24 million for the permanent replacement. The temporary bridge will be built alongside the existing bridge, while it is demolished and replaced. Construction is expected to run through 2013.

Until Friday, the drawbridge committee had been examining an alternate solution to the state plan: keeping the existing bridge operational while a replacement is built alongside it. But this option meant assuming the risk of complete bridge failure, a risk state officials were unwilling to take.

The committee hired Lichtenstein Consulting Engineers Inc. of Paramus, N.J., to examine the feasibility of keeping the bridge functional through a series of improvements until a permanent structure could be completed. The firm authored a report with suggestions for repairs to reduce the risk of failure, but state highway officials remained unconvinced.

On Friday, Ms. Paiewonsky acknowledged the widespread sentiment among Islanders who want to see the state replace the bridge with a permanent structure in a single phase, but she said that in the end the poor condition dictated the two-bridge solution.

"We need to be very concerned about the condition of this bridge," Ms. Paiewonsky said. "I have no confidence that it will be operational in seven years. As a public official, I don't think [the committee's plan for a one bridge solution] is the responsible thing to do. But I do think it is time to move forward and start the process now."

Ms. Paiewonsky also repeatedly referred to the Communities First initiative, a state-sponsored approach to involve communities in decisions related to road and bridge projects within their towns. She discussed Mass Highway's Project Development and Design Guidebook, which spells out the state plan to include communities in projects. And she dismissed any fears that the temporary bridge plan may not stick to its schedule.

"We will hold ourselves accountable and report to the drawbridge committee and follow the schedule," she said. "We will not let the temporary bridge become a permanent aspect of the landscape."

Despite the comments, a significant portion of the public discussion that followed reflected skepticism and distrust of Mass Highway.

"My concerns are about constituents and credibility," said Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott. "Mass Highway has terrible credibility with my constituents, and it stems from the Plymouth-quality construction standards the state imposes on the Island. We are going to have to sell this plan to the community and convince the people that this is what is best for the community."

Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Linda Sibley agreed.

"We cherish our rural roads, and I feel like we are locked in a constant battle with Mass Highway over them," she said.

Another concern centered on the lack of adequate space for bicycles on the temporary bridge. Ms. Paiewonsky said the state plans to address the problem.

Ms. Paiewonsky's final pronouncements came as a surprise to the members of the drawbridge committee.

"It kind of took the air out of the room, but I think what she had to say was positive and we look forward to a more open dialogue," said committee chairman Melinda Loberg. "Our biggest concern now is focusing on the temporary bridge and making sure the safety issues are addressed and that it follows its construction schedule."

Mr. Israel was less optimistic.

"I was very disappointed in Commissioner Paiewonsky's decision to go ahead with their plan," he said. "I thought she was coming down to listen, but it is apparent that the state had already made up its mind. I just hope they stick to their promises. Eight years is a long time; administrations change, budgets change and priorities change. That's my fear."

He said the sudden decision to close the bridge with little notice reinforced his doubts.

"While I am very glad that they are addressing the bridge sooner than later . . . they said nothing about closing the bridge when they talked about maintenance, and I am afraid this is what we're going to be dealing with for the next eight years."