Two-bridge drawbridge replacement plan appears set
Since MassHighway's replacement of the Lagoon Pond Drawbridge over the next few years will affect all of us, we wanted to give the Vineyard community an overview of where we are with this complex and controversial project. A public meeting co-sponsored by the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury Boards of Selectmen and the Martha's Vineyard Commission, with a lot more detail and an opportunity for discussion, will be held on Wednesday, December 7 at 5:30 pm in the Oak Bluffs Library.
The MassHighway plan is to install a temporary, pre-fabricated drawbridge between the existing bridge and the adjacent house, demolish the existing bridge, and a few years later, build a new, permanent bridge in the alignment of the existing bridge (the so-called two-bridge solution). An alternative plan would be to demolish or move the house, and build the permanent bridge next to the existing bridge (referred to as the one-bridge solution). We will look at the status of each bridge in sequence: the existing, the temporary, and the permanent drawbridge.
The Existing Drawbridge
After several significant repairs and an attempt to design a major overhaul to the existing bridge, MassHighway concluded that it could not be saved. The bridge has been shifting for many years resulting in a risk that the lift mechanism will fail to work properly, the decking is in serious condition and pile caps are rated in poor condition. The engineers suspect deterioration of the wooden piles below the mudline.
Earlier this year, the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury Boards of Selectmen, on the advice of the Drawbridge Committee, hired Lichtenstein Consulting Engineers to analyze the existing bridge. They concluded that the bridge is presently safe to use but had reached its reasonable life expectancy. They identified 12 possible mechanisms that could make part or all of the bridge unusable. For each mechanism, they outlined either preventative repairs that could be carried out now to reduce the chance of failure, or contingency repairs that could be carried out should certain types of failure take place.
On November 21, Committee members met engineers from MassHighway District 5 (responsible for bridge maintenance) to discuss the report. They will review it in more detail in cooperation with MassHighway's Bridge Section in Boston and let us know in January what measures they foresee taking. They said that, if warranted, they could carry out some modest repairs this spring and will set up a more sophisticated system to monitor small movements in the bridge structure, a sign that more aggressive action might be needed. They said that certain repairs, such as to specific areas of the bridge's decking, would only be done if they start to fail. They also indicated that they would not consider more significant suggested actions, such as replacing the entire decking or repairing the caps of the piles, because these would be very costly, lengthy, disruptive, and are not warranted, given that the temporary bridge would be in place relatively soon.
The Temporary Drawbridge
MassHighway gave two basic reasons for its plan to build a temporary drawbridge:
First, to reroute vehicular traffic during the construction of the permanent drawbridge so that it could be built in the same alignment as the existing bridge, thereby avoiding acquisition of the adjacent house and avoiding considerable fill and additional permitting in an environmentally sensitive part of Lagoon Pond. The drawbridge would continue to accommodate boat traffic, especially for emergency refuge for boats in the harbor.
Second, to get a new bridge built as quickly as possible because they believed there was a considerable risk that, even with repairs, the existing bridge would fail before a permanent new bridge could be built. The temporary prefab bridge can be erected much more quickly because of streamlined permitting and simpler construction using pre-made parts, a 60-foot high tower, a narrow roadway, and shorter approaches requiring sharper curves in the road (and a 20-mph speed limit) which would not be acceptable for the permanent bridge.
MassHighway held a public hearing in November 2003 to show the community the preliminary drawings (called the 25% design plan) for the temporary drawbridge. At that time, there was much discussion of various options, including relocating the bridge to another location, and even building a tunnel. To focus the community's reaction and coordinate relations with MassHighway, the towns of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury created the Drawbridge Committee that included town representatives, the County Engineer, and a representative from the MVC.
The Committee noted that the two-bridge solution would have many disadvantages: the additional disruption of having two construction projects, the additional expense, and the risk that this unattractive and less safe bridge would stay in place much longer than presently intended. However, the temporary drawbridge plan avoided having to acquire the house and avoided the additional fill and permitting required for a bridge in a new location. Most importantly, the Committee felt that the safety, economic, and inconvenience consequences of having Beach Road closed during the summer if the existing bridge failed were so great that it was simply not worth taking the chance. Note that the Coast Guard's position is that the bridge must remain in the up position in case of failure. After much analysis and debate, the Committee reluctantly endorsed the two-bridge solution, provided preparations were simultaneously started on the permanent drawbridge. This position was endorsed by both towns' boards of selectmen. A detailed report was given in May 2004 to MassHighway, including recommendations to shift the lift portion of the bridge to straighten the channel for greater boating safety.
In January 2005, the Committee held a public meeting to discuss the 75 percent design plans and sent additional comments to MassHighway. One remaining issue is the bicycle and pedestrian accommodation. Presently, the plans call for a five-foot-wide walkway on the pond side of the bridge. This raises concerns about its narrowness and the need for people to cross the road to get to it. We are awaiting MassHighway's response.
MassHighway is expecting to receive its final permit, from the Coast Guard, within a few weeks, to advertise for construction soon after, to have a contractor in place next spring, to have the piles driven during winter 2006-07 (the only time construction work can take place in the water for environmental reasons), to build the superstructure in the spring of 2007, and to have the bridge in operation by the fall of 2007.
MassHighway says that it will take six to eight years before the permanent bridge is completed. This is largely because of the required procedures to hire consultants, settle on a concept with public participation, prepare the technical drawings and documents, and obtain permits. In response to the community's concerns, MassHighway did begin working on the permanent bridge by starting the lengthy process of hiring consulting engineers. They have completed the first steps of the request for proposals procedure and, earlier this month, received submissions. They will now select three firms to submit more complete technical proposals. Although the Committee is pleased that MassHighway has started working on the permanent bridge, the Committee is concerned that, even at these early stages, progress is lagging, perhaps by six months.
MassHighway's chief engineer has formally committed the agency to building the permanent bridge as soon as it can be designed and permitted. Also, the Committee has carried out extensive efforts to inform our State and federal elected officials of the importance of building the permanent bridge in a timely way.
To help move the process along, the Committee gave preliminary recommendations for the design of the permanent bridge, including calling for a separate bicycle path anticipating an extension of the path between Wind's Up and the town landing. In August 2005, the Committee held a public meeting to get input on the design.
Next Wednesday's public meeting will provide more details about the status of various aspects of the drawbridge project and provide a venue for citizens to ask questions. It will probably be a last opportunity to discuss the one-bridge/two-bridge issue, since the contract for the temporary drawbridge will soon be advertised and awarded. We urge everyone who is interested in this matter to attend.
Melinda Loberg is Chair of the Drawbridge Committee and Mark London is Executive Director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which is coordinating the Committees efforts. All the documents mentioned above, including all Drawbridge Committee meeting minutes, are available at the Martha's Vineyard Commission website: www.mvcommission.org and search for the word drawbridge.