Massachusetts bridges: getting there from here

Massachusetts highway bridges, sometimes reported as worst in the U.S. during the 1980s, have been improving slowly. About 10 percent are now reported structurally deficient, compared with an average of about 11 percent for states across the country. Pennsylvania has become the most problem-ridden state, with about 23 percent of its bridges structurally deficient.

Trends: Massachusetts bridge improvements have been a bipartisan effort. Progress occurred during the Weld, Cellucci, Swift, Romney and Patrick administrations. The number of bridges rated structurally deficient has dropped from around 800 in the late 1980s to a little over 400 now. The state’s Executive Office of Transportation publishes information for 1996 through 2013 on its Web site.


Most improvements before the Patrick administration occurred on the cheap, renovating many smaller and simpler bridges but deferring work on bigger, more complicated ones: the Tobin, Longfellow, Fore River and Braga. One of the few ambitious efforts from 1991 through 2006 was renovation of the double-deck O’Reilly Bridge over the Merrimack River on I-495 in Lawrence and North Andover, multiple projects lasting about 8 years at a cost of over $50 million.

A leap forward: In 2008, the Patrick administration launched an 8-year “accelerated bridge replacement” program, with $3 billion authorized in bond funding. Through first quarter, 2014, about $2.3 billion in contracts was completed, awarded or advertised. The Patrick administration addressed several very large projects that the previous four Republican administrations dodged. They include these major bridges:

Mega-projects Number Location Cost Completion
Whittier 601096 Amesbury $292 million 2016-Q3
Longfellow 604361 Cambridge $255 milliion 2016-Q3
Fore River 604382 Weymouth $245 million 2017-Q1
Braga 605223 Fall River $197 million 2017-Q2
Quinsigamond 604729 Worcester $89 million 2016-Q1
I-93 north 606255 Medford $74 million 2012-Q3

A few of the recent bridge projects have used so-called “rapid bridge replacement” technology–notably 14 bridges along I-93 in Medford, all replaced in the summer of 2012. Unfortunately, no such technology is now available for the Tobin or most other steel-truss bridges. Antique bridges, built before Interstate standards of the late 1960s, are often budget-busters and projects that seem to take “forever.”

Among the rare exceptions to scandalous costs of antique bridge renovation was the 1888-1891 Harvard Bridge for Massachusetts Route 2A across the Charles River, Massachusetts Ave. between Boston and Cambridge. In the 1980s, a major renovation project cost about $16 million, on-time and on-budget. As compared with other renovations of antique bridges, the advantage–around tenfold in cost for the size of the bridge–was robust engineering and reliable construction, both when built and when renovated.

Restoring a fragile antique: The Longfellow Bridge was structurally deficient the day it opened. That’s what often happens with public works primarily designed by architects rather than engineers. The pretentious ten granite piers and eleven steel-arch spans, extending for 1,800 feet, were designed around 1897 to carry trains as well as horse-drawn vehicles and emerging motor vehicles. The four cigar-stub towers were never anything but fake Victorian ornaments.

At the time, although the Back Bay had been filled, the lower Charles River had tidal mudflats and garbage dumps. Shortly after the bridge opened in 1907, what is now known as the Science Park dam turned this part of the river into a catch basin for raw municipal sewage and industrial waste. Near the bridge, a bed of infectious and toxic river-bottom sludge has accumulated, up to six feet thick. However, the greatest misfortune of the Longfellow was that the complex, badly engineered structure came under custody of the former Metropolitan District Commission.

The MDC proved an even worse steward of the Longfellow than the Port Authority became of the Tobin. Unlike the Harvard Bridge, the Longfellow had not been designed to withstand careless management. In 1959, the bridge got a first overhaul under the MDC, by then a patronage-ridden agency in decline. The job was botched, failing to address complexities of the structure, and after several years the Longfellow again fell into severe disrepair.

The Longfellow was an obvious candidate for demolition and replacement. However, in 2003, the Longfellow went to an unprepared Department of Conservation and Recreation. The DCR had been taken over by antiquarians, who became determined to preserve not only the shapes of the elements but also the structurally inadequate, badly corroded and fractured original materials. Haggling over design added ten years of delay to a project only starting in 2013. A new bridge, perhaps a modern design like the Zakim, might have cost half as much and would be likely to last at least twice as long.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, October 24, 2014

Chris Palmer, Report lists Pennsylvania with most unsound bridges in U.S., Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 2014

Katheleen Conti, State’s bridges deemed deficient, Boston Globe, June 26, 2013

Longfellow Bridge rehabilitation, Massachusetts Highway Department, 2013

Sean P. Murphy, Big Dig’s red ink engulfs state, Boston Globe, July 17, 2008

O’Reilly Bridge on I-495, Boston Roads, 2006

Longfellow Bridge rehabilitation, Massachusetts Highway Department, 2006

Robert F. Breault, Kevin R. Reisig, Lora K. Barlow and Peter K. Weiskel, Distribution and potential for adverse biological effects of inorganic elements and organic compounds in bottom sediment, lower Charles River, Massachusetts, Report 00-4180, U.S. Geological Survey, 2000, figures with searchable but not copyable text from Hathi Trust Digital Library

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