The Whittier Bridge crosses the Merrimack River between Newburyport and Amesbury in the Northeast corner of Massachusetts. The bridge, which carries I-95 across the river, is one of five “mega-projects” in MassDOT’s Accelerated Bridge Program, with a projected cost of $285,000,000. So why is MassBike fighting to get bicycle infrastructure on an interstate highway
bridge? The answer is connectivity.
The communities adjacent to the Whittier Bridge – Newburyport, Amesbury, and Salisbury – are popular areas for biking and walking. On both sides of the Merrimack River, there are growing networks of paths as well as popular bike routes. To MassDOT’s credit, they have thought about ways to improve these networks as part of the project. This is good news, and will certainly make biking and walking in the area even more attractive. But when asked by MassBike whether the bridge itself will accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians, the answer was “We haven’t thought about that.” That might be a reasonable response if you are talking about an interstate highway where there are other safe options for bicyclists and pedestrians. The problem here is that there is no safe option, and this is the last available opportunity to create one.
Just east of the Whittier Bridge (literally a stone’s throw away), there is another way across the river. The Chain Bridge runs from Newburyport to the tiny Deer Island, and the Hines Bridge continues from Deer Island across to Amesbury. These bridges carry busy local roads, only one lane in each direction. There are no shoulders, and narrow or nonexistent sidewalks, so bicyclists have no choice but to take the lane and mix with car traffic. And there is no hope of modifying these bridges to safely accommodate bicycles – the Chain Bridge was already renovated several years ago, and the Hines Bridge is about to be completely replaced but the design does not improve conditions for bicycles. These were missed opportunities. Further downstream is the Route 1 bridge, carrying a multi-lane highway across the river – not suitable for bicycles.
Now we are left with one option for a safe bicycle and pedestrian route across the Merrimack River – the Whittier Bridge. The bridge is going to be completely replaced, and the design is still in the conceptual stage, so there is plenty of opportunity to create a new bridge that works for all users.
David Watson, Executive Director of MassBike, testified about these issues at the recent public hearing in Amesbury, and local bicyclists also spoke up. Several bikers thanked David for coming to the meeting, and one decided to make his own public statement after speaking with David.
We will continue to follow this project closely and fight for including bicycle access on the bridge. We strongly encourage bicyclists to speak up at meetings about local projects. Check our calendar for the latest information about upcoming meetings statewide.
Need help representing bicyclist interests in a project near you, or want to request that MassBike attend a meeting? Contact David Watson, firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-542-2453. While we don’t have the resources to take an active role in every project, we’re always happy to talk with you and see if there is a way we can help.