LOWELL — City officials with renewed urgency have renewed pressure on the state Department of Transportation to address the deteriorating Rourke Bridge.
Following the story of Steven Ubele’s oil pan torn up on the bridge, footage began to spread online about the condition of the bridge.
The images, taken from the Pawtucketville side along the river walk, include a broken steel floor brace, holes in a steel truss, cracks in concrete pillars and heavy corrosion.
The bridge carries more than 27,000 vehicles per day according to MassDOT.
Every two years, the bridge is inspected by MassDOT. In a public records request, The Sun obtained inspection reports for 2018 and 2020. Many images now show concerns present in 2018.
The 2020 inspection report shows that there is a strong loss of galvanization and rust in the floor bracing bars.
“Scattered bracing bars on the floor have loose or missing connecting bolts causing them to vibrate under live load,” the report said. “The connections between the scattered brace bars and the transom web show moderate to heavy rusting and the scattered brace bars have areas of section loss of up to 100%.”
According to the 2020 inspection, the transoms, which connect the bridge laterally, have areas of loss of galvanization and light to moderate rust. Other areas of the bridge show heavy rust and slight delamination of the steel. The pits in some places are up to an eighth of an inch deep.
Regarding the connectors, the 2020 inspection indicated that “the galvanized coating on the bolts and fasteners throughout the deck is beginning to deteriorate with discoloration and slight surface rusting”.
UMass Lowell structural engineering professor Susan Faraji has worked on numerous bridge projects throughout her career. She read inspection reports from 2018 and 2020 and reviewed recent photographs showing rusting steel superstructure elements and deteriorating concrete piers.
“The latest inspection report from November 2020 indicates that the bridge has passed the inspection,” Faraji said. “There are, however, visible signs of rust and deterioration and reported defects in some of the steel elements of the bridge.”
Faraji advised that the bridge’s existing weight limits be enforced. This would help reduce the overloading of the bridge in its current state.
“It would make sense to inspect the bridge now to ensure there have been no major changes in the capacity of the bridge since the last inspection. It would put commuters more at ease,” Faraji said.
Calling for an immediate inspection is a step City Council members called for last week.
On Friday afternoon, Councilor Dan Rourke walked across the bridge.
At the end of the walk, with his back to Bowlero Lowell, Rourke mentioned the news of the day – a bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, collapsed hours before President Biden was supposed to be in the city to tout his work on infrastructure. It’s a scene he doesn’t want to see in Lowell.
He is no stranger to the bridge’s narrow caged walkway. He said his wife would join him for a walk or a run, but not if that included crossing the bridge.
The drivers of several cars stopped in traffic with their windows rolled down, either to thank him for taking action or to tell him that a new bridge is needed. Minutes earlier, a PridestarEMS ambulance had cleared traffic at the light, likely en route to the main campus of Lowell General Hospital.
Rourke is unrelated to the bridge’s namesakes, former Mayor Raymond Rourke and former State Representative Timothy Rourke. Timothy Rourke was killed by a drunk driver in 1982.
The question of the bridge has a personal meaning for Dan Rourke. The Pawtucketville side is his constituency, and the bridge plays a major role in Lowell’s economy.
“We’ve waited long enough,” Rourke said. “It’s time for (the state) to come here and give us a new bridge. We need to make sure we do it in a timely manner so nothing disastrous happens with this one here in the meantime.
In recent weeks, Rourke has used his voice as a city official to drum up support for the replacement project.
This week, City Manager Eileen Donoghue sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker asking for the project to be included in her capital plan. This would allow the state to begin borrowing against the $100 million allocated in the 2020 carriage bond bill.
The letter was signed by Donoghue; Sense state. Ed Kennedy, D-Lowell, Michael Barrett, D-Lexington and Barry Finegold, D-Andover; and State Representatives Rady Mom, D-Lowell, Vanna Howard, D-Lowell, Tom Golden, D-Lowell, James Arciero, D-Westford and Sheila Harrington, R-Groton. The letter was at Rourke’s request.
Rourke and Councilman Corey Robinson also requested that the bridge be placed on the state’s Transportation Improvement Program. The pair would also like an emergency inspection to be carried out, before the regularly scheduled one next November.
MassDOT’s decision on whether or not to include the bridge should be known by March. Rourke said Governor Baker’s office and U.S. Representative Lori Trahan told him the bridge had to be part of that program in order to receive federal infrastructure funding.
The loss of the Rourke Bridge and the impact on the city could be seen in 2014 when the bridge suffered temporary lane closures throughout October.
Former Mayor Rodney Elliott remembers the traffic jam that engulfed the city and he doesn’t want to see it shut down. While Pawtucketville residents bear the brunt of the inconvenience, he adds that the bridge has a regional impact.
The structure was always intended to be temporary. During the ribbon cutting, Elliott was present as an employee of Senator Philip Shea. Somewhere along the line, Elliott said the bridge had been named a permanent structure
Twenty years ago, the city was concerned with many of the same issues regarding safety, structural integrity and access, Elliott said.
“The state is coming in, they’re throwing a million here, they’re throwing a million there just to put a band-aid on this bridge,” Elliott said. “There you go, there are more vehicles today. The bridge has become an economic engine and a transportation corridor to Highway 3, to jobs, so there are so many factors involved in that,” Elliott said.
Like his former colleague on city council, Elliott lives in Pawtucketville. Her daily commute includes a morning and evening trip across the bridge. Rolling down her windows, like so many others, came to her mind more than once. He doesn’t want to see the bridge closed, but he wants peace of mind that it’s safe to travel and a new one will be built.
“We need to act before it’s too late and it’s too late,” Elliott said.
With recent efforts calling for the bridge to be placed on the STIP program and included in the governor’s capital improvement plan, he’s optimistic the needle is moving.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease on Beacon Hill,” Elliott said.