MassDOT Having Trouble With Advanced Notification on Chelsea Street Bridge

Nothing is more frustrating than being in a hurry and finding oneself second fiddle to the needs of a 10-ton oil tanker as the Chelsea Street Bridge raises to the top in the midst of a busy day – killing off anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes due to delays from the operations.

Since the Chelsea Street Bridge came into existence, and especially since the new Silver Line SL3 service expanded to Chelsea last year, the Bridge operations have become a major backbreaker for those from Chelsea, Everett, East Boston and Revere trying to cross it with vehicles – including residents, MBTA buses and MassPort employee shuttles. Because maritime traffic has precedent over land traffic, according to the Coast Guard, the Bridge has to go up on demand when a vessel requests it.

That has resulted in five or more lifts in a day at times, and with no warning system until now.

In a regional state meeting this month at Chelsea City Hall, MassDOT announced the rollout of their new Advanced Notification Program (ANP) and the tweaks that are being made to help it work better.

They also updated the crowd on the long-term efforts being undertaken to try to change the operations of the Bridge so it’s more accommodating to vehicles and buses – particularly during the morning and evening rush hours.

“We know how difficult this Bridge is and how much a problem it can become for residents on both sides of the Chelsea Creek,” said Andrea Donato of MassDOT. “It’s larger and higher than the old bridge…When that Bridge goes up, no vehicles, no pedestrians and no cyclists can cross it. It causes significant and unpredictable delays for anyone that wants to use it.”

On July 8, the ANP went into effect, and it’s been “clunky” Donato said because it has been hard to get information.

The system uses electronic boards and the ‘LoganToChelsea’ Twitter feed (and other social media) to announce daily the estimated time of lifts on the Bridge and the duration for it to be up each time.

“This is a critical time in the program so the second goal is to get your ideas and we need to know from you about what we can do to make communication better,” she said. “We need to make it better.”

A second piece of the project is trying to make long-term changes to the operations of the Bridge that are friendlier to those on land, and accommodating to maritime uses as well – with many vessels restricted to operating only at high tide and some only during daylight hours.

“The first thing we’ve been working on is to find out how to get the best data now so we can at least communicate better today and improve operations,” she said. “Our longer-term goals take time and take data. We’re still working on those, but they’ll take more time…Since February, the momentum has been to implement Advanced Notification…and collect data for an application to the Coast Guard because there was no data previously.”

In addition to ANP, the other two goals include applying to the Coast Guard for the ability to have dual lift heights and to have time of day restrictions. Dual lift heights would allow operators to only have to lift the Bridge halfway for some vessels, thus lowering the wait times on land. Right now, every lift is required to go the full 175-feet up no matter what kind of vessel is passing beneath.

Time of day restrictions would be for the Bridge to stay closed during rush hour times, or other busy periods such as shift changes at Logan Airport.

Matthew Denning of the U.S. Coast Guard said maritime traffic has precedence and the Coast Guard takes that seriously.

“There is a process for changing the regulations, but it takes a long time and can only be changed if it will not increase the risk of maritime safety,” he said. “It can take up to five years in the worst-case scenario, but the Captain of the Port would not approve such a change if it would increase risk.”

One of the things Donato said they are concentrating on at the moment is working with Moran – a shipping agent that controls almost all of the traffic on the Creek – to get reliable data.

“The ANP rollout on July 8 was clunky because it was hard to get data,” she said. “We’re at a point where we need to have this working because it is at a critical time.”

A representative from Moran said they have some trouble finding out when barges might come in, but they do know the approximate time for all other vessels because they handle about 95 percent of the traffic on the Creek. Using Moran, the information is relayed to MassPort, MBTA and MassDOT to distribute on their networks, which include electronic boards, Twitter, T Alerts, and websites.

Still, there can be challenges though.

The Moran representative said sometimes there can be fog in the Harbor that holds ships up, even though it’s sunny on land. That can result in a backlog of vessels and barges, and the information published suddenly could be inaccurate. It could also result in about eight to 10 lifts unannounced in a short period of time to clear the backlog.

Also, he said it can be difficult to try to control the times of oil tankers, which are restricted to coming and going at high-tide, and during daylight.

“The ships, if full, are required to come through the Creek at high tide and during daylight,” he said. “They can only leave during daylight hours.”

The system is still in progress, and MassDOT is looking for feedback on the program through their website, under the ANP program.

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