Boston firefighter rescue on Skywalk happens every day

Signal being removed on the Mall in Boston. Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Suspension bridges are typically put out of commission for routine maintenance, but when the only way to close one bridge in the middle of a busy Boston-area road is with the help of emergency crews, nobody wants to wait for a replacement bridge to get built.

That’s what happened last week when five firefighters were forced to evacuate the Russian Hill Skywalk on the west side of Boston as fire crews worked to fix a part of the bridge being dismantled. The Skywalk is a 550-foot span over Salem Turnpike that connects Boston with the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Boston College and the Boston Athletic Association in the middle of Boston’s Freedom Trail.

When they needed to bring down the bridge, however, Metro-North Railroad couldn’t stop traffic since the bridge was an authorized “approved” access point for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, according to C.J. Murphy, a spokesman for Metro-North. But MBTA transportation officials wanted to avoid a bottleneck if possible, so they had the bridge taken down and a backup generator for the bridge prepared.

The bridge replacement started in late 2011, according to Mayor Marty Walsh, but Commonwealth Edison’s contract with the MBTA expired in July 2015. That means Metro-North, in 2017, only had until mid-2017 to fix the bridge. So naturally, it was always going to be removed on New Year’s Eve, according to Kelly Smith, communications director for MBTA General Manager Luis Manuel Ramirez.

“I understand a lot of folks would like to see a new bridge built,” Walsh said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “We’re trying to expedite the replacement bridge so we can be all that we can be.”

The Skywalk’s closing, however, had nothing to do with taking down the bridge — it was being replaced, Smith said. At the same time, there was a large amount of work and upgrades going on on the road leading up to the bridge, creating a super-busy intersection, she said.

“After the project was awarded, we requested that work proceed on schedule,” Smith wrote in an email. “Moving forward, the contractor will have to cut and place the new bridge, which will slow down the roadwork as Metro-North operates on schedule.”

Smith said that in every major undertaking in transportation, including Route 128 modernization, a highway bridge project and upgrades to the MASS MoCA, the Boston area has learned to “adapt to the change in circumstances and schedule,” she said.

“It is the workers who get stuck in the process — and we like to tell them just how grateful we are for their patience,” she said.

One of the contractors for Metro-North agreed that it was a good thing to get the fix to the problem on time and avoid people getting stuck in traffic.

“It is nice that the bridge is being removed from the roadways and removed from the congestion of construction, and, in doing so, being removed from the danger of erosion,” said Michael Sudtinen, District Manager of Massachusetts Metro-North. “We are particularly grateful to the emergency personnel that were called to assist in this process.”

The crews needed to drive to the bridge Monday morning to put the final piece of the span out of the machine, according to Walsh. By that afternoon, the bridge and the ramp were out of commission and were set to be lowered into place by 6 a.m. Thursday.

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