By the time the new permanent Lagoon Pond drawbridge is finished in Vineyard Haven sometime in the next decade, it will be one of the most expensive projects in Vineyard history with a total price tag well north of $30 million. It will also likely go down as the longest gestating project in Island history; the drawbridge plan has been stuck on open for nearly 20 years now.
The first mention of any plans to replace the drawbridge appeared in the Dec. 22, 1989 edition of the Gazette, in which it was announced the state Department of Public Works was looking into replacing the drawbridge, built in 1935 at a bargain basement price of $80,000.
At the time, some Island officials complained the state was dragging its heels in replacing the bridge. State officials said they were considering all possibilities, including a single span bridge, and they assured Island leaders a solution would be reached expeditiously.
“The delay in constructing a new bridge has nothing to do with the state budget crisis,” said DPW liaison Wayne Duchemin at the time. “It takes a few years to put that whole package together.”
State officials at the time talked about a tentative of budget of about $4 million to build the new drawbridge.
But the timetable is now a distant memory; as the project remained stalled for decades, the budget grew to $30 million and counting.
Meanwhile, the notion of a single span drawbridge has been replaced by a complicated, if not confounding, plan by MassHighway to build a temporary bridge alongside the existing bridge and later build a permanent drawbridge.
Work on the temporary bridge, estimated to cost upwards of $9 million, is just getting underway.
Last week signs were installed around the site limiting the speed limit during construction. A trailer will be built on the harbor side of Beach Road to serve as the contractor’s site office during construction, and in mid-November a barge will be in place from which piling and other water work will take place.
According to MassHighway’s current timetable, the bridge pilings should be installed by February of 2008 and the abutments completed sometime in March of 2008.
The temporary bridge will be made of prefabricated parts and work is slated to take place between the spring of 2008 and fall of 2009. MassHighway officials say one travel lane of the bridge may occasionally be closed in the off-season, although they pledge that both lanes of traffic will be open during the busy summer season. The temporary bridge is expected to be completed by September of 2009, when the current bridge will be demolished.
Things have certainly changed since the late 1980s. The plan for a single span bridge was thrown out after the U.S. Coast Guard declared that a drawbridge was necessary to maintain access for boats into Lagoon Pond.
The pond is a designated safe harbor in case of an emergency, and the Coast Guard has said in the event of a failure, the bascule must remain up to ensure boat passage from the harbor into the lagoon.
MassHighway officials say the temporary bridge is a necessary measure to reroute traffic and ensure that boats can enter the lagoon while work on the permanent bridge starts — two or three years from now. But the cost of the temporary bridge — initially budgeted for $3.2 million — has now swelled to over $9 million, making it possibly the most expensive temporary bridge in state history.
The design of the temporary bridge has also proven unpopular. Residents who have seen the plans, which call for a structure with large towers, have described it as garish and out of scale with the character of the town harbor and lagoon.
In the face of mounting opposition to the temporary bridge plan, the Lagoon Pond drawbridge committee in July of 2005 agreed to back a study to see if anything could be done to prolong the use of the existing drawbridge.
But the state trumped that effort, declaring that the bridge was not structurally sound and that the two-bridge plan was the only viable solution.
Many residents worry the temporary fix will wind up becoming a permanent solution.
Melinda Loberg, chairman of the drawbridge committee, said she understands the worry and mistrust of the state bureaucracy. But MassHighway officials have assured that the permanent bridge will be completed by 2013.
“We’ve received assurances at every step that we are not going to be stuck with the temporary bridge. They have made it difficult for themselves to go back on their word,” Ms. Loberg said.
She admits she had a hard time accepting the two bridge plan; but in the end she said local officials had little say in the matter.
“I think all of us struggled to wrap our brains around it. We asked ourselves, why can’t they build just one bridge? Do they need to spend $9 million on one bridge and $23 million on another? Do we need to drag this out another four or five years? But I think we’ve all reached the point of saying, let’s not go back to that debate,” she said.
Ms. Loberg said relations between local officials and MassHighway have sometimes been strained. But she said the bridge, which among other things links a main route to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, is essential.
“The Island cannot stand to be without a bridge that provides access into the lagoon for boats and over the lagoon for cars. We realize they are trying to come up with the best plan in a tough situation,” she said.
Some worry about the complicated financing of the project.
While funding is in place for the temporary drawbridge, money has yet to be secured for the permanent bridge. Earlier this year, Parsons Engineering was chosen to design the permanent bridge; the firm has begun to study the impact of boating on bridge openings in order to determine optimum height and location.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel admits he has been a doubting Thomas about the two-bridge plan since its inception, but he said he tries to keep an open mind.
“I will openly say this plan was ill-conceived from the start. I try to tell myself the [permanent bridge] will be there in 2013; but a part of me still thinks we’re going to have that temporary bridge for a long time. I have no question everyone from the state has all the best intentions, but I also feel that a new drawbridge could have already been built by now,” Mr. Israel said.
Dukes County engineer Steven Berlucchi, who serves as a liaison between the Island and MassHighway for the project, said the project is on track and will stay there.
“They understand this bridge could fail any day, and they also understand people don’t want some erector set sitting in the middle of [the lagoon]. They know how important [the drawbridge] is to the Island,” he said.