Selectboard signs, sends letter of support for Schell Bridge reconstruction project

  • A boat passes under the Schell Bridge on the Connecticut River in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The Schell Bridge reconstruction project will involve roadway work starting about 940 feet west of the bridge and ending about 1,025 feet east of the bridge.

  • According to the project overview from WSP Engineer Andrew Benkert, the proposed Schell Bridge structure will include a steel tied arch main span and two steel girder end spans. The entire structure will have a concrete deck and a hot mix asphalt surface for a shared-use path, which will be 18 feet wide on the bridge and 14 feet wide on the approaches. Webinar screenshot

Staff Writer
Published: 9/29/2020 8:30:01 PM

NORTHFIELD — In response to a recently published Schell Bridge design hearing webinar, the Selectboard met with Schell Bridge Advisory Committee Chair Judy Wagner and member Susan Ross on Monday before signing a letter supporting the reconstruction project.

Wagner said the advisory committee met on Sept. 24 to discuss the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) webinar. The webinar marks the “25 percent design benchmark” in the project to fully replace the Schell Bridge, which has been closed since 1985 because it deteriorated beyond being safe to use. She said members are excited to reach this point and continue moving forward.

“This is a key moment in the life of this project,” Wagner said. “Once the 25 percent design is completed, the project will speed up dramatically and many details are going to need to be worked out.”

The plan involves replacing the existing bridge over the Connecticut River with a pedestrian and bicycle bridge that could also accommodate smaller emergency vehicles, such as an ambulance.

According to Wagner, members of the Schell Bridge Advisory Committee are pleased with the design — involving a steel tied arch main span and two steel girder end spans — as presented in the webinar. She said there were some “inconsistencies” regarding the horizontal features of the bridge railings, however, so the committee has asked MassDOT for further review and clarification.

Wagner said members also favored one of the two proposed designs for the adjacent park, to be constructed on the north side of the east approach roadway.

“We strongly preferred Design A — they had two designs that had been floated — and they know that,” Wagner said.

One thing that raised concern, she said, was the parking plan shown in the design. Wagner said members thought there were too few parking spaces. Out of concern for abutters, she said the committee also asked MassDOT about the possibility of moving the parking spaces farther from the nearby driveways and houses. She expects MassDOT to provide a new design in the near future.

The letter signed by the Selectboard notes the positive economic impacts that may come from the bridge replacement project, which is seen as “the centerpiece for a larger vision of recreation and heritage tourism.” The completion of a new Schell Bridge, the letter states, could help expand businesses based on tourism while positively affecting local tax revenue and employment opportunities.

The project may also yield positive recreational impacts, providing an important link to trails, roads and recreational spaces on both sides of the Connecticut River.

According to Wagner, MassDOT may move the project timeline up, and put it out to bid in August of 2021. Construction is expected to begin in spring 2022, finishing within three years.

The total project is estimated to cost $22 million, with 80 percent coming from the Federal Highway Administration and MassDOT funding the remaining 20 percent. However, the estimate does not include any right-of-way acquisition costs.

To move the project along, and because of the shortened timeline, Town Administrator Andrea Llamas said it is necessary for Northfield to pay for some engineering and legal right-of-way work. Llamas requested the Selectboard permit using $15,000 from the town legal account, which is already allocated for legal work, with the idea that the town can approve other means of funding through a future Town Meeting vote.

While Wagner mentioned she has only been involved with the project for the past five years, she said she is aware of the many years of effort by other residents to ensure the historic river crossing is secured. Ross, who was president of the Friends of Schell Bridge group for a few years starting in 2011, said it was around that time that the project pivoted from being an historic restoration to a full replacement that emulates aspects of the original bridge.

“MassDOT has commented to me that they rarely see such widespread and sustained interest in a project, like they have seen in Northfield,” Wagner said.

With training as a city planner, Wagner said she volunteered for the Schell Bridge Advisory Committee because she could see the “tremendous potential” of the project.

“When MassDOT committed itself to federal and state funding for a $15 million project,” she said, “the vision of this crossing and all its potential became possible.”

Zack DeLuca can be reachced at or 413-930-4579.

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