Lowell eyes troubled key bridge, urging state action

2022-06-15 13:18:48 By : Ms. Kelly Tian

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LOWELL — City officials with a new urgency have renewed pressure on the state Department of Transportation to address the deteriorating Rourke Bridge, as a combination of viral images and national news brings the span’s safety into the spotlight.

Following the story of an oil pan being torn open on the bridge, images have begun spreading online of the bridge’s condition, including pictures of a broken steel floor brace, holes in a steel truss, cracks in the concrete piers and heavy corrosion.

The bridge carries over 27,000 vehicles per day, according to MassDOT.

Every two years, the bridge is inspected by MassDOT. In a public records request, The Lowell Sun obtained inspection reports for 2018 and 2020. Many of the images now show concerns present in 2018.

The 2020 inspection report shows there is heavy galvanization loss and rust throughout the floor bracing bars.

“Scattered floor bracing bars have loose or missing connection bolts causing them to vibrate under live load,” the report reads. “Scattered bracing bar to transom web connections have moderate to heavy rust and scattered bracing bars have areas of up to 100% section loss.”

According to the 2020 inspection, the transoms, which connect the bridge laterally, are exhibiting areas of galvanization loss and light to moderate rust. Other areas throughout the bridge have heavy rust and minor steel delamination. Pitting in some spots measures up to an eighth of an inch deep.

As for the connectors, the 2020 inspection said, “The galvanized coating on the bolts and fasteners throughout the bridge is beginning to fail with discoloration and light surface rust forming.”

UMass Lowell Professor of Structural Engineering Susan Faraji advised the bridge’s existing weight limits be enforced and the the span should be inspected. Doing so would help reduce overstressing the bridge in its current condition.

“The latest inspection report of November 2020 indicates that the bridge passed the inspection,” she said. “There are, however, visible signs of rusting and reported deterioration and deficiencies in some of the steel members of the bridge.”

Calling for an immediate inspection is a step members of the city council have called for in the past week.

On Friday afternoon, City Councilor Dan Rourke took a walk across the bridge, and then, with his back to Bowlero Lowell, Rourke mentioned the day’s news — a bridge in Pittsburgh collapsing hours before President Joe Biden was supposed to be in the city to tout his work on infrastructure. It’s a scene he doesn’t want to see in Lowell.

Drivers of several cars stopped in traffic, their windows rolled down, either thanked him for taking action or told him a new bridge is needed. Minutes before, a PRIDEStar EMS ambulance had cleared traffic at the light, likely en route to the Main Campus of Lowell General Hospital.

Rourke shares no relation to the bridge’s namesakes, former Mayor Raymond Rourke and former state Rep. Timothy Rourke. Timothy Rourke was killed by a drunk driver in 1982.

“We’ve waited long enough,” Dan Rourke said. “It’s time for (the state) to get over here and get us a new bridge. We need to make sure we get it done in a timely manner so nothing disastrous happens with this one here in the meantime.”

This week, City Manager Eileen Donoghue sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker requesting the project be included in his capital plan. Doing so would allow the state to start borrowing toward the $100 million allotted in the 2020 transportation bond bill.

The letter, at Rourke’s urging, was signed by Donoghue; state Sens. Ed Kennedy, Michael Barrett and Barry Finegold; and state Reps. Rady Mom, Vanna Howard, Tom Golden, James Arciero and Sheila Harrington.

MassDOT’s decision on whether or not to include the bridge should be known by March. Rourke said he has been told by Gov. Baker’s office and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan that the bridge needs to be in that program to receive federal infrastructure funding.

Losing the Rourke Bridge and the impact on the city could be seen in 2014 when the bridge underwent temporary lane closures throughout October.

Former Mayor Rodney Elliott can recall the gridlock that engulfed the city, and he doesn’t want to see it closed. While Pawtucketville residents bear the brunt of the inconvenience, he adds that the bridge has a regional impact.

The structure was always intended to be a temporary one. When the ribbon cutting was held, Elliott was in attendance as an employee of then-state Sen. Philip Shea. Somewhere along the line, Elliott said the bridge was named a permanent structure

Twenty years ago, the city was concerned with many of the same issues centering around safety, structural integrity and access, Elliott said.

“The state comes in, they throw a million here, they throw a million there just to put a Band-Aid on this bridge,” Elliott said. “Lo and behold, there are more vehicles today. The bridge has become an economic driver and a transportation corridor to Route 3, to jobs … We’ve got to act before it’s too late, and it’s getting to that point of it being too late.”

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