Gobi: Federal funding push, which could aid Schell Bridge, gaining momentum

Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi speaks at the annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting at The Brewery at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Saturday.

Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi speaks at the annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting at The Brewery at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi speaks at the annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting at The Brewery at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Saturday.

Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi speaks at the annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting at The Brewery at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

The annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting was held at The Brewery at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Saturday.

The annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting was held at The Brewery at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 10-29-2023 7:17 PM

NORTHFIELD — Federal funding will likely be the only hope for replacing Schell Bridge, Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi told those gathered for the annual Friends of Schell Bridge meeting on Saturday.

“I wish we could give you a $25 million check; that is not a reality,” Gobi said. “You need someone with larger pockets.”

The town’s latest push to secure federal funding this summer followed unsuccessful advocacy last year and earlier this year to get a grant through the 2022 Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program. Should the town be successful this time, the $25 million in funding — which would come as part of the United States Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program — would supplement another $25 million that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has already pledged toward the project.

“With each application, our proposals are getting stronger and stronger,” Mallory Sullivan, Northfield’s grant development director, told those gathered at The Brewery at Four Star Farms.

The proposed project consists of the complete replacement of Schell Bridge, which carries East Northfield Road over the Connecticut River and has been closed since 1985 because it deteriorated beyond being safe to use.

Sullivan previously explained that construction on the 350-foot steel Pennsylvania truss bridge began in 1901 and it opened to the public in 1903. The bridge is named after Francis R. Schell, a New York merchant who gave $42,000 for its design and construction. It links two sections of Northfield, as the town is the only one in the state that is divided by the Connecticut River.

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Authorities closed and barricaded the bridge, Sullivan said, after engineering studies in the 1970s and early 1980s determined it was structurally unsound. A new bridge, which could take up to three years to build, would be exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists.

Gobi said the state has increased its efforts to secure federal aid for infrastructure projects, with the Healey-Driscoll administration recently having created an office that is conducting outreach with municipalities to discuss applying for larger federal infrastructure grants.

“There will be about $17 billion coming out of the federal government. Why shouldn’t Massachusetts get some of that?” Gobi said.  “In the past, there have been grants, but there hasn’t been a focus from the state.” 

To strengthen attempts to secure federal aid, the state has taken the interest accrued from the Legislature’s Rainy Day Fund and plans to give the money to cities and towns applying for federal grants to be used for the necessary grant matches. According to Gobi, that fund has about $800,000 that will be used for matching funds. 

Gobi said the state fully supports the Schell Bridge replacement project because it will bring in thousands of dollars through economic development.

“That is something the state would embrace,” Gobi said. “We are now looking to the federal government to step it up.” 

Speakers at Saturday’s meeting echoed the need for partners to write letters of support for the project. Potential partners include U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, neighboring municipalities – including those in Vermont and New Hampshire – and recreation groups.

“You can never have too many partners,” Gobi said, stressing that McGovern can potentially be instrumental in securing funds. 

Selectboard member Barbara “Bee” Jacque said that with the town’s 350th anniversary theme of “Reconnecting Northfield,” this is the perfect project because it would unite the two parts of town on either side of the river. She pointed out that the United States Department of Transportation grant the town has applied for includes the word “reconnecting” in its name, too.

The Friends of Schell Bridge group has been advocating for a new Schell Bridge for two decades, continuing to persevere in the face of financial setbacks.

“Seeing you here and knowing you have been after this for 20 years says a lot about an organization,” Gobi told the group. “People often get discouraged … [but] you realize this is a long-term project.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at blevavi@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.