Bridge work keeping rail riders on buses

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo. The 108 train from Rockport to Boston heads over the Annisquam River in Gloucester. Train will continue stop in West Gloucester through June 30 as this bridge is repaired. Riders will be shuttled by bus to Railroad Avenue and Rockport.

MBTA riders to and from Cape Ann will have to opt for free bus service between the West Gloucester and Rockport stations for another two weeks while early work continues on replacing the Annisquam River drawbridge.

The shuttle service, provided by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, is necessary as crews from the Framingham-based J.F. White Contracting Co. carry out removal of the old wooden trestles on the bridge. 

Lisa Battiston, spokesperson for the state's Department of Transportation, said Thursday the bridge shutdown and work — and thus the bus service — is being extended "to accommodate ongoing construction activities" as part of the project. 

Initially scheduled from June 1 through this Sunday, June 16, the announcement means that through June 30 the buses will continue to ferry riders between the West Gloucester commuter rail station off Essex Avenue (Route 133) and stations in Rockport and Railroad Avenue in Gloucester. Trains will continue carry riders from the buses from West Gloucester along the remainder of the Rockport line route through Manchester, Beverly and to Boston's North Station.

"The shuttle bus extension comes as a result of additional testing and ongoing monitoring to be collected and verified," Battiston said in an email to the Times. "An overabundance of caution is being taken with the 108-year-old structure to ensure safety and reliability prior to reopening."

Demolition of the wooden trestles on the south side of the bridge — the side closer to Gloucester Harbor —is a highlight of the current work. The bridge dates to 1911 and underwent a major reconstruction in 1932.

While the bridge was identified in a 2011 safety study as being in the worst shape of any bridge within the MBTA system, officials have maintained it remains safe for crossing. But trains regularly slow to a virtual crawl before crossing it — especially from the east, or downtown Gloucester, side. And crews have regularly carried out safety maintenance work on the bridge and its approaching tracks when needed in recent years.

T.J. Ciarametaro, Gloucester's harbormaster, said Thursday he understood there had been some delays in work on the project, which was awarded to J.F. White off a 2017 bid of $57 million. The work has been estimated to carry an overall price tag of up to $80 million when the costs of easements and other landside issues are included.

But he reiterated that he does not expect the project to impact river traffic beyond the fact that the project will now carry through St. Peter's Fiesta, which primarily runs June 26 to 30 at St. Peter's Square  in Gloucester's downtown. The work is being carried out with the bridge stuck in the up position. 

"We get a ton of boat traffic for Fiesta. The harbor and the river is jammed," he said, "especially if it's a nice day that Saturday and Sunday and more and more people come in from out of town. But as long as the bridge is stuck in the up position, it shouldn't cause any impact.

"If it were stuck in the down position, that would be a problem," he added.

The overall project calls for the contractor to build a pair of twin spans to accommodate the bridge's two crossing tracks. The contractor is working on one track at a time to minimize any down time in rail service.

Ciarametaro said he's been notified that work on the bridge sometime between October and January will force a full, two-week shutdown of the channel to all boat traffic, but the state has not yet announced any specific dates. The river is slated to undergo a dredging project beginning in October.

While the shuttle buses are operating under the MBTA's regular rail schedules out of Rockport and Gloucester stations, the MBTA has advised that customers should plan to arrive at the stations five to 10 minutes early and plan for additional commuting time.

Battiston reiterated that all shuttle buses will be accessible for persons with disabilities, but bicycles will be prohibited during all service hours. More information on the Rockport-Gloucester-West Gloucester bus shuttle is available at mbta.com/gloucester.

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.

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