Bridge closing suffers coms snag
A gap in communication left many Island town officials and agencies out of the loop and confused about plans to close the Lagoon Pond drawbridge overnight on June 12, for repairs.
The Massachusetts Highway Department (MassHighway) maintains the aging, sporadically malfunctioning bridge and is responsible for notifying Island authorities about closing it and erecting signs to redirect traffic.
About five years ago, MassHighway announced plans to replace the drawbridge by first building a temporary bridge alongside the existing bridge, which will then be demolished and replaced by a permanent drawbridge.
The temporary bridge is to be completed in 2010, and the permanent bridge in 2013. Given the scope of the work and the likelihood that the existing bridge will occasionally be closed, whether due to malfunctions or construction, last week's incident pointed to the need for a chain of communication.
At mid-day on June 12, The Times received unconfirmed reports that the bridge might be closed, starting at 8 pm. Calls to Tisbury and Oak Bluffs police and emergency medical personnel around 1 pm confirmed they had received faxes about the bridge closing. The Oak Bluffs highway department and Tisbury department of public works had not. There also was some confusion about whether the fax came from the State Police or the Dukes County Communication Center.
It took until about 3:30 pm for The Times to verify with several phone calls that the Lagoon Pond drawbridge would be closed from 8 pm June 12 until sometime early in the morning of June 13, depending on how long it took the crew to finish repairs.
The repairs were made necessary by two recent malfunctions. During Memorial Day weekend, on Sunday, May 25, the drawbridge failed to close completely following a regularly scheduled 5 pm opening. Bridge tender Bob Maciel called repair crews from MassHighway in Boston to the Island. They arrived at 8:45 pm and had to secure lodging for the night before getting to work.
Mr. Maciel said it seemed that vibration from construction activity on the temporary bridge, as well as the tides, caused the drawbridge to shift. The MassHighway crew was able to grind off part of the mechanism, where it was stuck because of the shifting, as a temporary fix. More permanent repairs have been scheduled.
The bridge had another mechanical malfunction a few days earlier, requiring evaluation by a MassHighway engineer and the scheduling of repairs by an off-Island crew from NEL Corporation.
State Police Capt. Bob Moore said he has been told that when the bridge malfunctions, MassHighway conducts an inspection to determine what the damage is and how it might be repaired. "Then they have to make a decision about how they can get the work done and how fast they can get a crew from NEL down here," he said. "And then we get a call from the company when they're actually going to send a crew so we'll have police officers at the bridge to shut the traffic down."
Since the repair company notified the State Police directly, Capt. Moore said Sgt. Neal Maciel notified the Communications Center and sent out a fax to Tisbury and Oak Bluffs first responders, which accounted for other agencies and the media not getting the word, including The Times and MVY Radio.
"Typically, when we notify the Communications Center, they reach out and do the notifications." Captain Moore said. "We don't do multiple notifications."
After finding out late Thursday afternoon about the bridge closure plans, Tisbury department of public works director Fred LaPiana said he talked with MassHighway personnel about establishing a better communication path to keep him and other town officials in the loop.
Although Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton and Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee did not receive any advance notice about the bridge closure, both said it helps when they do, because they get so many calls from people. Mr. Dutton did credit MassHighway with doing a good job in providing updates on the construction progress.
Sheriff McCormack said the gap in communication between Island agencies is something the Communications Center plans to address in the near future. "We're in the process of resolving issues like this," he said. "Sometime in August, we hope to have a reverse 911 system in place that will automatically notify Island police, fire, and ambulance departments, the media, and town officials and Island agencies about emergencies or other events like bridge closings. Eventually, we hope the system will be able to automatically notify all Island residents, as well."
MassHighway requires press inquiries to be handled through a public information office. MassHighway provided no information by press time in response to a list of questions about last week's bridge closures, although a spokesperson confirmed by email it is the agency's policy to notify Tisbury and Oak Bluffs authorities about bridge closures.