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Town considers ’emergency repair’ to Division Street span, releases plans for Brown Bridge upgrade

Town manager Mark Pruhenski acknowledged that the costs for the emergency repair of the Division Street bridge, which are currently unknown, would be in addition to whatever it costs to perform a permanent repair or replacement.

Great Barrington — Town officials are exploring the possibility of an emergency repair to the Division Street bridge that would allow it to be reopened temporarily to passenger vehicles.

At Monday’s selectboard meeting, town manager Mark Pruhenski said the town is working with the engineering firm Tighe & Bond to design temporary repairs, even as the town moves forward with a final design on a replacement of the troubled span. On orders from the state Department of Transportation, the embattled bridge was closed to vehicular traffic the second week of September.

At the Dec. 16 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard, town manager Mark Pruhenski explains to the selectboard his research on a possible emergency repair on the Division Street bridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The firm is developing what Pruhenski called an “alternatives analysis report” that will provide options for emergency repairs “that would allow us to get that bridge reopened with a reduced load capacity to at least accommodate passenger vehicles.”

See video below of town manager Mark Pruhenski on Monday updating the selectboard on both the Division Street and Brown bridges:

Pruhenski laid out an aggressive preliminary timeline for the emergency repair, which would be in addition to plans for a permanent replacement: conceptual or preliminary plans by January 2020; local permitting the following month; review and approval by MassDOT in April; final design in May; advertise the project and award the contract in June; construction would start in late summer or early fall.

Pruhenski acknowledged that the costs for the emergency repair, which are currently unknown, would be in addition to whatever it costs to perform a permanent repair or replacement.

The Division Street bridge in happier times. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“It will cost us more money,” he said. “We don’t have a cost estimate at this point but of course that will be part of the conversation: Is it worth the cost … the additional cost?”

In response to questions, Pruhenski said cost estimates could be obtained in time to get an item on the annual town meeting warrant in May that would ask taxpayers to approve or deny the additional spending.

The highly traveled Division Street bridge runs east and west, and connects routes 41 and 183 just south of the village of Housatonic. Barriers and detour signage were installed to alert drivers. The bridge remains open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

A little more than a year ago, the state Department of Transportation deemed the bridge “structurally deficient” after a July 2018 inspection revealed deteriorated steel stringers.

Voters subsequently approved a $4 million bond at the 2019 annual town meeting to fund significant repairs or a complete replacement of the aging steel-truss structure, which was originally constructed in 1950. No timeline for that operation has been released, but Pruhenski said the long-term goal would be to reopen the bridge to truck traffic.

Taft Farms, the popular store and farm at the intersection of Route 183 and Division Street, has seen a sharp decline in business since the closing of the Division Street bridge. Photo: David Scribner

The town has been under some pressure to find a way to reopen the span, which crosses the Housatonic River on one of the busiest streets in that part of town just south of the village of Housatonic. Some residents have accused the selectboard of dropping the ball on the Division Street bridge, insisting that Town Hall should have seen the closure coming and acted earlier.

Dan Tawczynski, who, with his family, owns Taft Farms, a popular farm and store at the intersection of Route 183 and Division Street, has said business at his store has decreased by 38% on Mondays through Thursdays since the Division Street bridge closed the second week of September. Tawczynski has suggested Taft Farms might go out of business if the closure persists.

Division Street resident Michelle Loubert, a longtime critic of policy on the bridge, said she was not convinced the town could enforce the ban on trucks if the bridge were opened to passenger vehicles temporarily.

At the Dec. 16 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting, Division Street resident Michelle Loubert was skeptical as to whether the town could enforce a passenger-vehicles-only rule on the bridge near her house. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Loubert has long complained that large trucks exceeding the weight limit routinely crossed the bridge every day and that her requests for increased police patrols did little good.

“As a resident, I have a real concern here,” said Loubert, who is also a member of the town finance committee. “Motorcycles have been going over the bridge since it’s been closed. Nothing’s been done about that … How is the town of Great Barrington going to enforce saying only cars are going to go over it?”

“That will be part of the discussion,” said Selectman Ed Abrahams.

Brown Bridge plan released

Pruhenski also updated the board on the timeline and logistics involving a major repair to the Brown Bridge. That span is state-owned and so is the responsibility of MassDOT. Click here to read a recent Edge article on the Brown Bridge, complete with its history and the color the selectboard would like to paint it when it’s finished.

On Monday, Pruhenski traveled to MassDOT’s District 1 office in Lenox to meet with department officials. Also in attendance at that meeting was state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. Listening by phone was Patrick Carnevale, the director of Gov. Charlie Baker’s western Massachusetts office in Springfield.

The project has gone out to bid and repairs are slated to begin in June of 2020. The operation is expected to take between six and nine months to complete, and is estimated to cost $1.6 million, all paid for by the state. The project includes strengthening existing steel which has deteriorated, repairing bridge railing and painting the bridge.

A Great Barrington police cruiser is stopped on the Brown Bridge during the morning rush hour. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The repairs are necessary to maintain the current weight limit and will extend life expectancy at the same time,” Pruhenski said.

A major source of concern is whether the bridge will remain open to two-way traffic. The intersection at routes 7, 41 and 23 is tricky to navigate and involves turns coming from almost every direction. The project is complicated by the closure not only of the aforementioned Division Street bridge but the nearby Cottage Street bridge, which was shut down earlier this year and is expected to remain closed for at least five years while the town awaits state grant money to replace it.

MassDOT has provided the town with an early draft of a traffic control plan. Click here to see it. The plans call for two 10-foot-wide travel lanes in addition to a pedestrian walkway and a construction zone with staging that will be used on one side of the bridge at a time. The north side will most likely be repaired first.

“So our biggest concern — our priority — is to keep this bridge open to two lanes, clearly,” Pruhenski said. “So we delivered that message and I think it was heard loud and clear from DOT officials.”

The only time the bridge will be reduced to one-lane alternating traffic will be when the staging transitions from the north side of the bridge to the south side. And even then, the town will have plenty of warning and the lane reduction will be done at off hours to minimize disruption.

“I’m feeling much better about this proposal now that two-lane traffic will remain in place,” said the town manager.

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