Passing into History: Great Eastern Becomes the First Ship to Use the Vertical-lift Bridge

November 23, 2011
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A view of the new Chelsea Street Bridge seen from the deck of the Great Eastern. The pictures of the first passage of a ship under the new bridge were snapped by Pilot Richard Stover and Dock¬ing Pilot George Lee.

A few unexpected snags back in September may push back next week’s re-opening of the Chelsea Bridge to vehicles to March according to MassDOT Project Manager Frank DePaola. The project to replace the aging Chelsea Street drawbridge bridge in East Boston with a new vertical-lift bridge is now slated to be completed in the spring.

“We’re still on schedule for overall completion in April, but getting the trusses across and the deck across are delayed a bit with the weather turning now,” said Frank DePaola, the MassDOT Highway Administrator. “I’m not sure we’ll get the deck on as quickly as hoped. It should be March at the latest.”

The project’s community consultant John Vitagliano, whose job it has been to brief both Eastie and Chelsea residents concurred with DePaolo’s assessment.

“We probably could make a push for December but the bridge would have to reclose in February for several weeks so the Army Corp of Engineers can begin dredging the creek to make it wider for the larger tankers that will navigate the waterway,” said Vitagliano. “So keeping the bridge closed until March would make more sense.”

Crews finished positioning the 600-ton trusses between the two giant skyscraper-like hoisting last week. That process involved pushing the trusses into place four-feet at a time. After each four-foot push, crews had to stop and check the alignment. Each four-foot positioning process, DePaola said, took about one hour.

During that time the channel was closed to marine traffic. It re-opened to marine traffic late last Thursday.

The oil tankers currently passing through the existing narrow 93 foot wide channel is the widest allowed at present and will be replaced by new larger, more efficient tankers as a result of the channel widening that will accompany the new bridge.

“The larger tankers will benefit local motorists because they will be able to deliver more fuel per vessel, meaning a reduction in required openings for both the Chelsea Street and McCardle (Meridian Street) Bridges,” said Vitagliano.

Visible from dozens of points throughout Eastie and Chelsea, the bridge is an impressive 200 ft. structure that tower over the Chelsea Creek.

The 73-year-old structurally-deficient Chelsea Street Bridge was demolished and replaced with a new state-of-the-art drawbridge.

A few years ago, U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano was able to secure funding for the project in the federal transportation bond bill. Three years ago the federal government granted the state the authority to spend $437.9 million on transportation projects through federal highway funds, with $153.2 million of that funding committed to “shovel-ready” projects.

Two years ago, the Patrick Administration put the first eight recovery projects out to bid, dedicating an estimated total of approximately $30 million for infrastructure improvements in every region of the state.

The Chelsea Street Bridge was one of these projects.

The Chelsea Street Bridge project involved the replacement with a truss-type structure that spans 450 feet and will provide 175 feet of vertical clearance when raised.  The new bridge and approach roadway match the footprint of the existing bridge and provides for four lanes of traffic (two in each direction) and two pedestrian sidewalks. Approach roadways will be reconstructed to meet existing local streets and a complete warning signal and gate system is included in the project.

The project will address long-standing issues caused by the narrow passageway used by oil tankers that resulted in accidents.  Since 1972, there have been 133 incidents in which ships, tugs or barges have struck the bridge. The new bridge has an environmental as well as a safety component, as the reduced potential for collisions will diminish the threat of oil spills.  In June 2000, a tanker collision spilled 50,000 gallons of fuel oil, closing the waterway and delaying aviation fuel deliveries for three days.

The warning gate and bridge traffic signal operations will be coordinated with the Central Avenue/Marginal Street/Eastern Avenue intersection in Chelsea to control traffic flow during bridge openings.

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