General Pierce Bridge to be restored by 2024

  • From right, Hema Vhatt, MassDOT’s project manager for the General Pierce Bridge’s rehabilitation; Philip Cherry of WSP, the engineering consultant firm; and Benjamin Holsapple of WSP at a public forum at the Shea Theater Arts Center Tuesday night in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • The General Pierce Bridge has been reduced to one-way-at-a-time traffic since June, and won’t be fully restored until summer 2024. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/5/2020 10:00:01 PM

MONTAGUE — They say the night is darkest before the dawn, and the new dawn of the General Pierce Bridge is very far.

To restore the bridge to full service, it will be closed for construction from summer 2021 to summer 2024.

The General Pierce Bridge has been reduced to one-way-at-a-time traffic since June. At the time, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which manages the bridge, did not say how long the bridge would be at reduced service, and did not publicly discuss any long-term plans for whatever construction might have been needed.

Even local public safety officials have not known if or when the bridge might be restored to full service; and Montague Selectboard members have occasionally mused in public meetings that they know as little as anyone else about what’s going on with the General Pierce Bridge.

MassDOT’s only explanation since June was that the reduction was to ensure the structural integrity of the bridge — which locals had already been wondering about.

“I remember being a young kid in middle school and high school, running on that bridge and thinking, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe this bridge is still standing,’” said Mike Nelson, who is on the Montague Selectboard. “Fast forward, I’m pushing 40 years old, and I still can’t believe the bridge is standing.”

On Tuesday night, a plan and a timeline for restoring the General Pierce Bridge to once again be safe for two-way traffic was announced by MassDOT and its engineering consulting firm WSP (this name is not an acronym) at a public forum at the Shea Theater Arts Center. Residents were glad to hear that there’s a plan, but expressed disappointment by the timeline and the somewhat limited scope of the project.

Most importantly, the bridge will be totally closed to all vehicle traffic from summer 2021 until construction ends in summer 2024. In the meantime, it will be open for foot traffic.

This project is not a total replacement of the bridge, but a rehabilitation for code compliance: parts of the steel support structure will be replaced, and the deck will be rebuilt and repaved.

“The way it looks right now is pretty much the way it will look when we’re done,” WSP engineer Benjamin Holsapple reassured Tuesday night’s audience.

In the three years it will take to restore the General Pierce Bridge to its former glory, traffic will be diverted to the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge via Route 2. WSP estimates this to be an extra 5 to 15 minutes of travel time. Signs will be posted on Interstate 91 and Route 5, so that people who may be using a GPS will be made fully aware of the status of the General Pierce Bridge.

Traffic light patterns will be adjusted to minimize congestion at the intersections along the French King Highway with Avenue A, Adams Road, Loomis Road and Silver Street. But even with the adjustments, waits at those stop lights will be about 5 to 10 seconds longer, said Phillip Cherry of WSP.

The intersection of Route 2 and Avenue A and Gill’s Main Road, at the Gill side of the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge, will be slightly modified to reduce congestion further. An extra turning lane will be added on Route 2 coming from Greenfield, and on Main Road coming from Gill.

Residents voiced some displeasure at this news. Town Administrator Steve Ellis mentioned that reducing access to Turners Falls for such a long period of time could cause difficulties for local businesses, and that the increase in traffic coming from the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge could be a safety issue on the pedestrian-friendly Avenue A.

“We’re excited that you’re here, we are apprehensive about what you are going to be doing,” said John Hanold, who is on the Montague Finance Committee.

Responding to public comments after presenting the basic information about the plan, the project’s leaders mentioned a few details that riled the audience.

One, the bridge won’t be repainted in its rehabilitation. Some spoke in strongly unfavorable terms about the green color of the bridge, and said that the rehabilitation could have been an opportunity to change it.

“I personally think bridges are green,” said Montague Selectboard Chair Rich Kuklewicz. “Whether I like green or not, most bridges are green. They painted the French King Bridge black, and a lot of people wanted it green. So who’s gonna win? I’d just like to see really good quality paint on the bridge to help protect the steel, and help that investment last even longer.”

Maximizing the investment is not the plan, however. This rehabilitation is seen by MassDOT as a temporary solution, expected to last 25 years, said Richard Massey, of MassDOT’s District 2 office.

A full replacement was considered, but was estimated to cost at least $60 million. MassDOT can only handle projects as funding allows, Massey said.

This information was not received warmly. Kuklewicz complained that, based on the state’s track record, the bridge likely will not be repaired on time when its 25 years are up, putting local towns that use the General Pierce Bridge into the same position they’re in now.

In Montague, Nelson said, the Selectboard has prioritized long-term investments over relatively temporary fixes.

“I’d encourage the state to take a page out of our book, and spend the taxpayers’ money the way it needs to be done, and do it right the first time,” he said. “More money is going to get us a bigger bang for the buck in the long run.”

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.

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