University’s Partnership with City Helps secure competitive TIGER grant

East Campus bridge
The Pawtucket Street bridge that serves as the main connection to East Campus is going to be replaced thanks to a $13.4 million TIGER grant secured by the city in partnership with the university.

By Ed Brennen

Every day, students on East Campus make nearly 7,000 trips on foot or by bike across the short, aging Pawtucket Street bridge spanning the Northern Canal.

And every day, students take more than 4,000 bus rides to and from South Campus, rides that have to wind through neighborhood streets because two of the bridges crossing the Pawtucket Canal — one on Pawtucket Street and another on Broadway Street — are closed to buses.

Those routes will soon be upgraded, however, thanks to a $13.4 million federal grant secured by the City of Lowell, in partnership with UMass Lowell, that will help pay for the repair or replacement of eight of the city’s canal bridges, including several that serve as vital links to the campus.

“This is a huge opportunity for the university and the city,” says Director of Campus Planning and Development Adam Baacke, who worked with the city to help secure the TIGER, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The grant is going toward the Lowell Canal Bridges project, which identified $16.7 million in repairs or replacement costs for the city’s historic structures. The university will contribute $2 million to the project, while the city will chip in $600,000 and assume ownership of all eight bridges, at no cost, from Enel Green Power North America, which has owned the bridges since 1986 and will also help pay for the project.  

According to Baacke, the university will recover its contribution through savings on transportation costs, while also benefiting from the improved safety and appearance of the new structures.

“We’re putting all this investment in our campus to support the high-quality research institution that we are, but the infrastructure between our campuses, frankly, just doesn’t send that same message,” says Baacke, who adds that the new bridge to East Campus will provide the most noticeable improvement. “We have the opportunity to replace that bridge with a signature structure that will be a real asset to the campus.”

Long Shot Pays Off

While the city has a long history of trying to get private owners of the canal bridges to maintain them (Baacke says they found a letter from the 1890s complaining about the condition of the structures), the solution came remarkably quickly.

In March, then-Chancellor Marty Meehan and City Manager Kevin Murphy traveled to Washington D.C. and met with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and Sen. Ed Markey to discuss ways to secure funding for the bridges. The recommendation was made to apply for a highly competitive TIGER grant, which since its inception as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has received 6,700 requests for $134 billion in funds — and awarded just $4.6 billion to 381 projects.

Not only were the odds long, but time was short: The application deadline was in early June.

So Baacke and Associate Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony headed up a team along with the city’s Urban Renewal Project Manager, Craig Thomas, to put the application together. In addition to engineering assessments and traffic studies, the team reached out to the Manning School of Business to review its benefit-cost analysis. Two faculty members, Asst. Profs. of Finance Hieu Phan and Steven Freund, and doctoral student Man Nguyen, crunched the numbers and agreed that the project would boost the city economically over the next 25 years.

“That was a huge part of the grant,” O’Mahony says. “It represents what UMass Lowell does well, with faculty, staff and students working together and recognizing the importance of this project.”

Another key factor to winning the grant, according to Baacke, was submitting the application as a website, (  “It really adds to the credibility of the application,” says Baacke, who praised the Office of University Relations for quickly building the site. 

In October, the Lowell Canal Bridges project was named one of 39 projects from across the country to receive a share of the $500 million in grant money — out of 627 requests for $10.1 billion in funding.

“We were competing against state transportation departments and major cities, so this was really a coup for Lowell to be able to pull this together,” says Baacke, who worked for the city for 14 years before joining the university in 2014. “Our partnership helped a lot, and clearly the support of our elected officials was critical. The city council and city manager had the courage and leadership to embrace this project, which required a tough negotiation and vote for an agreement with Enel that some in the community argued against. 

“And a big credit goes to our executive cabinet for being willing to help put money toward this. That comes from the real leadership of former Chancellor Meehan, our current chancellor, Jacquie Moloney, and (Vice Chancellor for Finance and Operations) Joanne Yestramski in particular for seeing the wisdom of making that commitment.”

“Addressing these bridges has been one of our biggest hurdles,” Yestramski says. “When you think about all those other cities with beautiful canal systems — San Antonio, Indianapolis, Providence — we have that beautiful canal system too except for those bridges. Now students get to enjoy that as well.”

Next Steps

Now that the funding is in place, the real work begins. While the city negotiates a grant agreement with the DOT (“The contract of what we’re going to do,” Baacke says), the bridge design work and environmental permitting process will get underway.

“These bridges can be replaced fairly quickly once they start, but most people don’t realize how long the whole permitting process takes to get started,” says Baacke, who estimates the entire project could be completed by 2019 or 2020.

The Pawtucket Street bridge over the Northern Canal, which was originally constructed in 1849 and was rebuilt in 1920, will cost an estimated $4.2 million to replace. During construction, which is expected to take less than a year, pedestrian traffic to and from East Campus would be diverted across the nearby Aiken Street canal bridge. Pawtucket Street in this area would likely be temporarily turned into two-way traffic to allow vehicles to access LeLacheur Park and the East Campus buildings.

“As with any major infrastructure improvement, you have a little bit of pain when it’s happening,” Baacke says. “But it’s easier to endure knowing in the end that you’re going to end up with something that’s so much better than what you have now.”

The Pawtucket Street bridge over the Pawtucket Canal, which has a history dating back to 1793, was last rebuilt in 1948. Since it’s now such a major artery of the city (averaging almost 20,000 vehicles per day), its construction will likely have to happen in stages to allow for alternating one-way travel. Once the new $3.4 million bridge is completed and university buses are able to make the short half-mile drive down Pawtucket Street to South Campus, Baacke believes it will open students’ eyes to just how close the campuses truly are.

“If we can turn that around and have buses take the direct route, students are going to realize that wow, it’s really a short walk,” says Baacke, who is also working on increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic along the stretch through the recently launched Pawtucket Street Corridor Study.

As for the Broadway Street bridge over the Pawtucket Canal, another key connection to South Campus, Enel has agreed to rebuild the bridge for $5 million and then transfer ownership to the city once work is complete in late 2016.

The Suffolk Street bridge over the Northern Canal, located near the Wannalancit Business Center, was already closed this summer for repairs and will undergo an additional $2.9 million in work as part of the project. The project’s four other bridges — Central Street over the Lower Pawtucket Canal; Merrimack Street over the Western Canal; Merrimack Street over the Merrimack Canal; and Kearney Square over the Eastern Canal — are farther from campus but still impact travel for students living at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.

“With our larger goal of trying to get people to walk, bike or use our transit system to connect between campuses so that we reduce our traffic impact, it obviously has a lot of sustainability benefits,” says Baacke, who can’t imagine how the problem would have been addressed had the TIGER grant not come through. 

“People kept asking us what plan B was, and I kept dodging that question,” he says with a laugh. “We had to be confident this was going to work.”