The state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and the City of Boston have revealed this week that the unexpected, extended construction on the Alford Street Bridge this fall was the result of an approval in 2012 that allowed a less stable bridge decking to be installed in place of more stable materials – materials that were called for in the original contract.
The story on the faulty decking was first reported by Channel 4’s I-Team last week, but the Independent has been pursuing the story since last summer.
The issue percolated over the summer when the Independent learned that the Alford Street Drawbridge – on the Boston/Everett line – was going to have to go under construction again. That came just a few years after a major construction re-build that lasted nearly four years. Very little was disclosed by state officials as to why the new bridge already needed major repairs, but sources had indicated last summer that the iron decking was already breaking down.
On Oct. 1, the state and City of Boston – who co-own the Bridge – began a lengthy, $15 million rebuild of the decking – a price tag on top of the already $50 million spent previously.
The project is supposed to last through April or May, 2019.
Already, though, it has drivers and residents bemoaning a situation that they believe should not be happening.
Daily gridlock due to permanent lane closures routinely have traffic backed up through Lower Broadway and into Sweetser Circle – compromising response times by the City’s public safety agencies.
Everett Fire Chief Tony Carli said the Department has to maintain quick response times to Lower Broadway due to the heavy industry that is there – such as Schnitzer Steel, DistriGas, Exxon and the Power Plant, as well as the residential neighborhood. In the days after the Oct. 1 beginning of the Bridge, he said it quickly became apparent something needed to change.
“We started to see an increase in response times because of the traffic down to one lane,” he said. “We already knew that there would be things going on with the SPS and casino work, but the Alford Street Bridge made that the perfect storm, especially in the morning commutes.”
The Everett Fire Department has put an apparatus on Lower Broadway in a Fire Command Station over the last two weeks daily from 5:30 to 9 a.m. Carli said they have been very busy and have responded to several incidents with good response times.
MassDOT, however, has refused to pay for the cost of that engine deployment. Instead, Encore Boston Harbor has agreed to pay for it, with Carli saying the casino is aware they are a cause for the traffic problems now too.
“We knew it would be a challenge during all the construction on Lower Broadway, but we didn’t expect the Alford Street Bridge to go down to one lane for several months at the same time,” he said.
City Councilor Michael McLaughlin said it’s a situation that is unacceptable for his ward.
“We had to endure this bridge project for years and years and it was painful back then,” he said. “We should never have to repeat that and I cannot believe the decking has already been compromised. Someone should be held responsible and the residents of Everett and Ward 6 should be informed as to why their lives have been turned upside down again. I think we all deserve answers and accountability. A brand new bridge should not need a complete overhaul so soon.”
MassDOT told the Independent that in 2012, MassDOT, the City of Boston and the Federal Highway Administration approved the contractor to use a riveted grid decking system. That was an alternate material, and not the material originally called for in the contract documents. The riveted system was, at the time, determined to be the most appropriate product available for the project. That riveted decking system was chosen over what many say is the more appropriate product, a welded grid deck.
MassDOT stated that alternative materials are often approved for many reasons.
“Alternative products are commonly approved for construction projects based upon the latest models and versions of products and what is currently available in the market,” read their statement.
The riveted decking was installed in 2014, but began failing in less than a year.
According to materials from MassDOT, after the Bridge was turned over to the City of Boston, the bridge began to break down in the inbound lane. Sources said that, likely, the team didn’t anticipate the speed and frequency of trucks from the Produce Center going over the Bridge to get to the highway.
Last year, it was observed that a temporary fix was put in place when iron panels were welded over the riveted decking. However, that made the decking too heavy for the motors that operate the drawbridge – coming close to burning them out frequently.
After back and forth between the state, City of Boston and the contractor, SPS New England, it was determined that all three parties would share some portion of the additional $15 million cost to put on the more stable decking.
“In an effort to settle the issue and provide a deficiency free grid deck, MassDOT directed SPS New England replace the riveted alternate with the contract specified welded grid deck,” read materials from MassDOT. “After evaluating the current market and the product options, the decision was made to install a welded grid decking system on the Alford Street Bridge through the ongoing repair work.”
SPS New England has been ordered to do the “extra work” on the Bridge through and Extra Work Order. The price tag is estimated at $15 million, but that could change. Right now, the City of Boston, MassDOT and SPS will split the costs, but negotiations are still ongoing as to whom will pay what.
MassDOT indicated the bridge is safe for travel, and they decided to do the work now based on input from key stakeholders, including the US Coast Guard. During construction, the Mystic River channel must be closed to marine traffic, and volumes of such traffic are lowest in the October to April months.