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Will Conway open the bridge?

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Officials tour Burkeville Covered Bridge in Conway

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Officials tour Burkeville Covered Bridge in Conway

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Burkeville Covered Bridge in Conway

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Burkeville Covered Bridge in Conway

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Sarah Williams of the Conway Historical Commission asks questions about the Burkeville Covered Bridge to Mark Devylder of the Massachusetts District of Transportation about opening it to vehiclular traffic.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Sarah Williams of the Conway Historical Commission asks questions about the Burkeville Covered Bridge to Mark Devylder of the Massachusetts District of Transportation about opening it to vehiclular traffic.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Officials tour Burkeville Covered Bridge in Conway
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Burkeville Covered Bridge in Conway
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Sarah Williams of the Conway Historical Commission asks questions about the Burkeville Covered Bridge to Mark Devylder of the Massachusetts District of Transportation about opening it to vehiclular traffic.

CONWAY — Since 2006, the town has followed what seemed to be a state requirement that the restored Burkeville Covered Bridge be closed to motor vehicles.

But now it appears that may have been just a recommendation, and the town gets to decide whether to reopen the bridge to vehicular traffic.

“When I asked (State Bridge Engineer Alexander Bardow) who makes the final call, as I understand it, it’s the bridge owner. The town makes the decision on its use,” said Sarah Williams, chairwoman of the Conway Historical Commission. “The state DOT has an advisory role, not a final say.”

In the sub-freezing cold Thursday morning, state and local officials met to review the status of the historic span that townspeople want to reopen. Selectman Rick Bean, Town Administrator Ed MacDonald, Paul Dunphy from state Rep. Stephen Kulik’s office, and members of the Conway Historical Commission met at the bridge with Mark Devylder, a bridge engineer for District 1 of the state Department of Transportation.

The town has pushed to re-open the 1871 bridge — which connects Route 116 to Orchard Street and Main Poland Road over the South River — since 1985 when it was initially closed due to structural deficiencies. Over the next 20 years, townspeople raised money to repair and re-open the bridge. In 2003, the town invested $1 million in state and federal money to renovate it.

“The town worked hard for years to get things going. The Historical Commission and townspeople donated money in tough economic times to save the bridge,” Williams said.

The renovation was completed in 2006 with steel rails supporting the original wooden framework and with a posted weight limit of eight tons.

The then-state highway commissioner, Luisa Paiwonski, said the bridge should remain closed to non-pedestrian traffic, citing the bridge’s lack of steel and crash-tested guardrails. She also reasoned that vehicles would bring salt onto the wood structure during winter, causing decay. That view apparently was taken as gospel by town officials, and the bridge has remained closed to vehicle traffic ever since.

Despite the state’s position, the Historical Commission did not give up the effort to fully reopen the bridge. At the April 2006 town meeting, residents authorized the commission to pursue the bridge’s re-opening. In the last six years, the Historical Commission continued to lobby for the bridge’s re-opening. It’s efforts were stalled when a previous selectboard told the commission to hold off until state officials changed. The current selectboard, on the other hand, has given its full support to the Historical Commission.

The main reasoning behind the bridge’s closure is the state’s desire to preserve the three remaining covered bridges in the state. The other two historic covered bridges are in Colrain and Great Barrington. There are only 10 similar bridges remaining in the United States.

“Our original recommendation to keep it closed was more of out a concern to preserve the bridge,” said state Bridge Engineer Alexander Bardow. “It is one of the last remaining examples of covered bridges in Massachusetts. The intent was to preserve the structure for future generations.”

The legal question now is who — the state or the town — has jurisdiction over the bridge and who can decide whether it remains closed to traffic.

“Mass. General Law gives Mass DOT the authority to determine the safe load-carrying capacity of the bridge and make a recommendation to the town,” Bardow said. “At this time, our recommendation is to keep it closed to vehicles.”

Williams questions whether the town has to follow that recommendation.

“If the town wants to open it and the state doesn’t, who gets to make that call?” Williams asked. “It seems like there is no legal backing to the state’s argument. Democratically speaking, the townspeople should make the call. We own the bridge. We have the liability. We can make the decision.”

Another question that may determine the fate of the bridge is its posted weight limit. Currently, the bridge is posted for eight tons. This means vehicles up to the size of pick-up trucks and small vans could safely cross. But heavier vehicles like dump trucks, fire trucks, small delivery trucks and school buses would be too heavy.

Town officials and Mark Devylder discussed re-rating the bridge to decide whether it is safe for vehicles to cross. But Bardow in Boston said it may not be necessary.

“The bridge has not seen vehicular traffic. I don’t think it needs to be re-rated,” Bardow said in a phone interview. “I need to review the latest inspection report and look at the original design and details used to upgrade the bridge in 2006.”

According to state law, the DOT determines the maximum load that any bridge may safely carry.

The state has a backlog to rate bridges. The state rates about 200 or more bridges a year.

Bardow said if the Burkeville Covered Bridge is a priority, “we’ll try to do it as quickly as possible.”

“If there are no major changes to the structure, it wouldn’t take us too long to look at the analysis and rate the bridge,” he added.

Meanwhile, the town is willing to compromise.

“We’re offering to open it during the tourist season and close it during the winter. It’s a bridge. Use it as it’s intended for. That’s what makes it living history,” Williams said.

The selectmen and Historical Commission sent a joint letter to the DOT on Thursday requesting to re-open the bridge. They had already sent the same letter to Gov. Deval Patrick.

In the letter to the DOT, Williams added three conclusions she reached in conversation with Bardow: the state rates the bridge under the law, the state can then advise the town whether it is prudent or not to open the bridge, and the town decides how to use the bridge.

“We might follow up to confirm that understanding,” Williams said.

The next step, Williams said, is for the town to confirm the bridge’s rating and for the selectmen to decide whether to re-open the bridge.

“The District 1 office in Lenox is the primary intermediary,” Bardow said. “We’ll be working closely with the district office to effect whatever decision is arrived at.”

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
kmckiernan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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