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MassDOT gives green light to upgrade of Bridge Street span

When work will be begin on repairing the Bridge Street span, and what restrictions on traffic will be imposed during the repairs has yet to be determined. Bridge Street provides access to the east side of Great Barrington and is a busy bypass during the Main Street Reconstruction Project that is just getting under way.

Great Barrington — When resources are precious and state aid is hard to come by, sometimes priorities have to be shuffled.

Such is now the case with the “functionally obsolete” Bridge Street bridge, a critical link to and through an area of town that is quickly becoming a crucial component of much needed economic development. But without a bridge that can safely handle the higher weight loads of larger trucks and more traffic, all the ambitious plans for Bridge Street could go up in smoke.

The sidewalk on the north side of the Bridge Street bridge. Photo: Heather Bellow
The sidewalk on the north side of the Bridge Street bridge. Photo: Heather Bellow

That’s why the town and local businesses recently formed a coalition to ask the state for $2.4 million to rehabilitate the 65-year old bridge. The request was rejected. But the state had already allocated $1 million to paint the brown bridge at the intersection of State Road and Route 7. The state will now use that money to upgrade the Bridge Street bridge instead, according to Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), who, along with Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), quickly saw what needed to happen.

“We’ve already got $1 million approved and signed by the governor,” Pignatelli said. He asked the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), “How about if we swap the money?” He said repairs to the Bridge Street bridge are “more important for economic development” than painting the other one. He said the brown bridge could be painted “in the years to come.”

Pignatelli said that after a meeting with MassDOT’s District 1 Director Peter Niles, “the deal is done. We’re ready to roll.”

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said she was delighted. “We are lucky to have Smitty looking out for us in GB,” she said.

Pignatelli noted that the state will do the work, and that MassDOT estimates that $1 million should be enough to get it done right. The town engineer’s $2.4 million estimate was for a full replacement of the bridge, but MassDOT will reinforce it instead. “This will spruce it up and make it safe,” Pignatelli said.

Pignatelli further said that Niles was in the process of drafting a letter to the town to say the project has a green light, and will ask the town to come up with a detour route, since the bridge may have to be closed for a few months.

The bridge has been designated as obsolete, and incapable of handling heavy trucks and traffic. Photo: Heather Bellow
The bridge has been designated as obsolete, and incapable of handling heavy trucks and traffic. Photo: Heather Bellow

“They think it should be closed to work on the structure all at once,” Pignatelli said. There may have to be a compromise, however, because “the town would like to keep maybe one lane open because of the Main Street construction project.” That project has forced drivers to use Bridge Street as a relief valve to avoid Main Street traffic. Pignatelli said the compromise may be that the bridge is closed and the work done in the fall, when construction has slowed. According to Pignatelli, the reason for closing the bridge completely is to speed up the repair and thus save money.

Tabakin said that the MassDOT is very “reasonable” about such conundrums and how they plan projects: “They are very good at what they do.” She added that the town has not yet entered into discussions with them about detours and lane closings, but she said that MassDOT will likely make significant community outreach, similar to they way they recently approached plans to repair the Park Street bridge in Housatonic. A public hearing for community input was held last month. In that instance, she said, the community was comfortable with a proposed five nighttime closings of the bridge in order to expedite work.

A site plan rendering of 100 Bridge Street, the $45 million development intended for the former New England Log Homes site.
A site plan rendering of 100 Bridge Street, the $45 million development intended for the former New England Log Homes site.

Built in 1950, the 150-foot Bridge Street bridge spans the Housatonic River, connecting homes on the east side of town to Main Street. It also serves as a bypass around Main Street to access State Road, and in the other direction, Fairview Hospital. The bridge has weight restrictions and a low structural rating that may hinder current and future development efforts on Bridge Street, “a key part of the Town’s economic development strategy,” according to the town and community letter asking the state for funds.

That strategy includes the 8-acre brownfield just east of the bridge, the former New England Log Homes site, the soil of which is in the midst of a bioremediation process that will resume this spring; the long vacant former Searles High School, for which a local hotel owner has proposed a luxury hotel and conference center; and the newly renovated former Bryant Elementary School, which is now the world headquarters of Iredale Mineral Cosmetics.

The former Searles School on Bridge Street may be redeveloped into a luxury hotel. Photo: David Scribner
The former Searles School on Bridge Street may be redeveloped into a luxury hotel. Photo: David Scribner

Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC) is investing $45 million in public and private money to develop 100 Bridge Street, a combination of commercial space, affordable and market-rate housing, and open space along the Housatonic riverbank. The CDC and The Berkshire Co-Op Market are still working out the details for an expanded Market on the site. CDC Executive Director Timothy Geller said construction is set to begin late fall, possibly on November 15, and to be completed by late winter or early spring of 2017.

The town has already spent $270,000 on Bridge Street projects, including engineering and street design, and environmental remediation. There is also $500,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding proposed for the open space and affordable housing components of 100 Bridge Street, still to be voted on at Town Meeting.

Geller said that fixing the bridge is “absolutely critical.”

“We’re talking about a neighborhood in which upwards of $50 million will be invested in the next five to six years, and significantly more activity,” he noted.

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