Opened in October 2018, the new and improve Whittier Bridge provides increased safety measures and new opportunities to surrounding municipalities
By Brianna Fries
The Whittier Bridge, originally built in 1951, crosses the Merrimack River and connects Amesbury and Salisbury to the seaport of Newburyport. As of October 2018, this critical link for the regional transportation of residents, commuters, businesses, and tourists has officially been replaced and reopened to the public.
Named for the well-known Fireside Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, The Whittier Bridge had a lot riding on it, literally. It bridges the gap between two towns that date back to the 15th century and have been growing since their establishment. Between actively growing populations and the implementation of new codes, it was plain to see that the Whittier Bridge wasn’t up to modern standards.
In the summer of 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) began construction on the Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project. The goals of the project included improving the bridge’s safety standards, the geometry of several I-95 exit ramps, and its capacity and traffic flow. These were vitally important goals to help keep drivers safer and address the fact that that the bridge was no longer able to meet the traffic needs of the region.
“The project also improved stormwater management and supported multimodal travel and recreation with the addition of the first shared-use path along a Massachusetts interstate,” detailed Ernie Monroe, Resident Engineer of the MassDOT Highway Division District 4.
The Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project was selected for Design/Build construction by the MassDOT, allowing the project designer – HNTB – and contractor – Walsh/McCourt – Joint Venture – to work collaboratively to complete the design and construction of the project according to the specifications provided by the MassDOT. This approach also enabled certain construction activities to commence even while the project design was being completed.
Some Unique Challenges
The Whittier Bridge is a highly vital piece of infrastructure to the people on either side of the Merrimack River. This means that when the MassDOT wanted to replace it, they had to do so in a way that allowed them to maintain three lanes of traffic in each direction during peak commuting hours.
The project team overcame this hurdle with the use of a unique construction phasing design. Monroe explained, “As the new northbound bridge is wider than the existing bridge to accommodate a shared-use path, this structure was able to carry all six existing lanes of I-95 traffic, three per direction. This allowed for all I-95 traffic to temporarily be shifted onto the new northbound structure while the existing bridge was removed and the new southbound bridge constructed. “
In addition to accommodating daily traffic, the surrounding environment also had to be taken into consideration. The area of the Merrimack River that the Whittier Bridge crosses is subject to large tidal fluctuations and strong currents. These risks were mitigated by using a gantry crane for the construction of the bridge’s superstructure, which simultaneously eliminated the need for the use of a barge-mounted crane.
The Final Result
The Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project encountered a largely positive response from the public along with a great deal of anticipation and excitement for the finished product.
On October 30, 2018, Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito joined Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver, members of the Massachusetts Legislature, municipal officials, and local leaders at a ribbon-cutting event in Newburyport. This event celebrated the completion of the $318 million Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project and marked the end of a five-year long project.
The final product incorporates four travel lanes and a breakdown lane in either direction, as well as a wonderful arch design. Additionally, four adjacent bridges along a four-mile stretch of the Whittier Bridge were replaced or reconstructed in order to accommodate a widened I-95 from Exit 57 to Exit 60. The new bridge also features a shared-use path, for use by pedestrians and cyclists, which expands access to the surrounding trail networks for exploration and community enjoyment.
“The collaboration and partnership between the MassDOT project team, municipal officials, local leaders, and stakeholders throughout this project has been key to its success, and we look forward to this bridge and highway continuing to serve the public for many years to come,” said Lieutenant Governor Polito.
“I am proud of the MassDOT crews for their tireless efforts in replacing this important structure and ensuring we carried out this project in ways that provide the most public benefits,” added Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver. “The new Whittier Bridge demonstrates that bridges can be aesthetically pleasing, reliable, and have multi-modal features.”
The MassDOT will continue to seek to improve the state’s infrastructure over the next five years as well. They expect to spend over 7.3 billion on roadway and bridge construction projects, which include providing support for the Municipal Small Bridge and Complete Streets Funding Programs, two local funding programs created by the Baker-Polito Administration.
Brianna Fries is an Assistant Editor for American Infrastructure magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org