Merriam Street Railroad Bridge Loses Weight…Rating

Why does the bridge look like it is on fire? I don’t know. Photo credit: Wikipedia

While perusing the weekly Department of Public Works newsletter (a well-written and amazing summary of all the work that goes on around town–do subscribe here), the Owl was mystified by the following paragraph, taken verbatim from the newsletter:

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Merriam Street Bridge over the MBTA

MassDOT lowered the bridge carrying capacity of the bridge from 6 tons to 3 tons due to deficient superstructure elements. Weston was made aware of this change on June 11 and Town Officials are in talks with MassDOT regarding options to increase the carrying capacity of this bridge in the short term as well as what the long term options will be for this structurally-deficient bridge.

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“Structurally-deficient bridge”….ahhhhmmmmm, what? Having grown up in Connecticut where a highway bridge was also “structurally-deficient” and then collapsed, the Owl worries. Didn’t we just pass a federal infrastructure bill? It’s time, Massachusetts, to get some of that funding over to Weston, and this picturesque, albeit completely lunatic bridge. By the way, I should explain before going on that this bridge is state-owened and maintained–there is little Weston can do without Charlie Baker’s gang getting involved.

If you are not familiar with this bridge, it is as small–town as it gets. Its surface is a jigsaw of wooden planks that seem to get periodically unscrewed. I expect that one day a plank will simply arc up, like they do in Looney Tunes cartoons, and smack some unsuspecting Chevy Bolt in the face. It’s the Wiley Coyote bridge to me. It even has wonderful scary noises of planks moving as cars go across.

The speed limit on said bridge is 20 miles per hour, though I have occasionally (and most recently on Thursday evening) seen cars become airborne at around 35 mph. Yes, I saw you Mr. Jeep Cherokee. I have also seen a minivan full of kids, driven by a dad, go almost slowmotion (at probably 30 mph) motocross-jump-style, airborne with all the kids with mouths open probably screaming “yahoo!” Yes, the police periodically come out and stealthily hang out in the Silver Hill train station parking lot to waylay unsuspecting thrill seekers. This is not Coney Island, folks. Note there is also a hairpin curve coming into the bridge from the southside. It’s crazy old-timey road engineering.

From a Wicked Local Story about bridge repairs in 2013. Still 6-ton limit.

No school bus or fire truck is allowed across the bridge, even at the former six-ton limit. If you are north of the railroad tracks, your truck is coming from Conant or Church or let’s be real, Lincoln. My backyard is in Lincoln. I am hopeful that the Minute Men will back up Weston as necessary. No, I am not casting aspersions (blowing smoke?) at the Weston Fire Department–they rule, of course, but geography is what it is. And so is the bridge.

In case you were wondering, the average Cadillac Escalade (without 8 kids) weighs almost 3 tons, the current weigh limit after the state reduced the level in June. This means that if you drive anything over Highlander size, you might want to wave ahead the landscape truck already on the bridge. They can test the weight-bearing load. My SUV weighs 2 tons so I am willing to share the bridge with anyone in a Honda Fit (1.25 tons) without worrying too much.

In case that is all too math-y for you, let me mention that I sent an email over to the hard-working and straight-talking Tom Cullen, DPW Director. As always, I got an answer within an hour–I really do not know how DPW does all it does and is still so responsive to calls and emails. To digress for a moment, DPW recently fixed up some signs on a private road at a speed not seen on the Wiley Coyote bridge, and has helped out the nonprofit and understaffed WFTA gang on more than one occasion. Yay, DPW!

Anyway, here’s Tom’s response, which I share with you with his permission:

The rating of the overall bridge is based on certain load-carrying parts of the bridge’s approach spans (noting that the bridge is a three-span bridge) superstructure, and additionally noting that there are a lot of unknowns relative to old timber bridges). From my perspective, having a bridge rated at 6 tons is too low — we can’t drive most of our snow plowing equipment over the bridge legally at the weight posting.

Not to get into the particulars of how a bridge element(s) gets dropped to 3 tons……but assumptions and continuing declining deficiencies play a role in the State’s bridge inspection unit dropping the overall bridge rating for the structure as a whole.

The State is very aware of the long term impacts to this community if the rating of the bridge is not increased temporarily while a bridge design addressing that very issue as well as other current design standards. My understanding was back in the late 90’s early 2000s, there was a public hearing to advance a bridge replacement design that did not go well and the design was put on the shelf. 

We can’t legally drive a one ton pick-up over this structure at this point and neither can the Fire Department.   

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So, Weston, is it time to picket the State House? All Kellogg alums should pick up the purple Wildcat-phone and give a call over to Charlie who is a Northwestern alum. Talking points: First we lose Silver Hill station, next we lose the access to the northside for all large vehicles. Does the State House think we ride horses to school? Maybe we should ride horses to school–I know a great trails-only connection to the high school. Alas, no horse.

At this point, it seems that Town Officials (per original DPW newsletter) are working on it with the MBTA, so we can stand down. For now. Happy driving!

Image Credit: Chuck Jones for Looney Tunes

2 comments

  • There have been several hearings on the Merriam Street bridge over the years. One “did not go well” because of the state’s plan to take a fair amount of property by eminent domain in order to reposition the bridge and increase the speed limit. Shockingly enough, Weston residents don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about eminent domain. We took another hard pass on a later plan to raise the clearance of the bridge significantly to allow double-decker trains to pass under it, which would have created a virtually alpine ascent to the bridge from the north followed by a significant descent past Silver Hill to the south. More eminent domain was involved there as well. I don’t know what the solution is, but the abutters and residents of the Silver Hill neighborhood are just fine with it the way it is, since al the state’s proposals seem to involve taking land and increasing the speed limit.

    • As you know I am a huge fan of Silver Hill and its residents. I would only note those residents are on the south side of the bridge and fire trucks can get there just fine…. No one likes eminent domain. No one. I wish we could find a less invasive solution of course. Maybe we can just close it to cars altogether and make it a bike and horse route. I am 5 minute from heading over it to College Pond. In my 2.5 ton truck.

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