City’s Two-Year Project Expected to Create Traffic Challenges On and Around Campus

an architectural illustration of the new Northern Canal bridge on East Campus Image by courtesy
As seen in this architectural illustration, the new Northern Canal bridge will greatly improve the walk to and from East Campus.

By Ed Brennen

It’s not exactly Boston’s Big Dig, which was compared to performing open-heart surgery on a patient while they ran a marathon, but the ongoing Lowell Canal Bridges Project is creating some traffic challenges around the city.

Those challenges will hit closer to campus starting this summer as the city of Lowell and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation begin work to replace a pair of aging Pawtucket Street canal bridges used regularly by students, faculty and staff.

The work is expected to start in late July and take two years to complete.

“The university understands that the process will have some challenges, but we’re really looking forward to the positive benefits that the finished bridges will bring for the connectivity of the campus,” says Director of Campus Planning and Development Adam Baacke, who helped the city secure $13.4 million in federal funding in 2015 for the repair work.

On East Campus, the one-lane bridge used by many residential students to cross the Northern Canal will be replaced by a more attractive span that will include a 12-foot-wide sidewalk. The bridge will be closed to all automobile traffic, so cars and university buses will be re-routed to cross the canal on Aiken Street. The current sidewalk will remain open to pedestrians during the first year of construction, however, so students will still be able to walk or bicycle to class. The pedestrian path will then shift to a portion of the new bridge next August.

A student crosses the Northern Canal bridge Image by Ed Brennen
The existing Northern Canal bridge sidewalk will remain open during the first year of the replacement project before moving to a portion of the new span next summer.

As part of the project, the one-way portion of Pawtucket Street (between Aiken Street and Fox Hall) will become a two-way road, with a dead end at the bridge construction site. This will allow cars to exit the East Parking Garage and Fox Hall parking lot toward Aiken Street. Pedestrians accustomed to only looking for one-way traffic when crossing Pawtucket Street must remember to now look both ways.

The East Campus bus stop across from Fox Hall will be permanently relocated to the traffic circle in front of the Campus Recreation Center. The new location will be more convenient for students living in University Suites and River Hawk Village.

The city is also replacing the Pawtucket Street bridge over the Pawtucket Canal, located between University Crossing and Wilder Street (heading toward South Campus). The current bridge, last rebuilt in 1920, is unable to accommodate the weight of university buses, which must detour through the city to reach South Campus. When the new bridge is complete, buses will be able to take the more direct route down Pawtucket Street, saving students time and also reducing the university’s CO2 emissions.

During the replacement work, the Pawtucket Canal bridge will be reduced to one lane, traveling only southbound (away from University Crossing). Drivers heading north on Pawtucket Street will be diverted at Broadway Street (the lane will close at Walker Street), which means South Campus will likely see an increase in traffic, especially during the morning and evening commutes.

A car drives over the Pawtucket Canal bridge Image by Ed Brennen
Pawtucket Street will be reduced to one-way automobile traffic, heading from University Crossing toward South Campus, while the Pawtucket Canal bridge is replaced.

“It helps that Coburn Hall will be closed for renovations at the same time, but there are still a lot of students, faculty and staff crossing Broadway from the parking areas and bus stop,” Baacke says. “They will have to be aware and prepared for the increase in traffic.”

In the spring, the city will also begin repairs downtown on the Merrimack Street bridge over the Western Canal and the Central Street bridge over the Pawtucket Canal. Two-way traffic will be maintained during both projects, so the disruptions should not be as noticeable. The Central Street work will reduce the bridge from three lanes down to two, which may impact the commute for students residing at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.

In addition to the canal bridge work, the city is also preparing for a major redesign of the Lord Overpass area near the Gallagher Terminal. The work will likely affect traffic for those driving into the city via the Lowell Connector, which could impact commuter students, as well as faculty and staff.

“It’s going to be wonderful when it’s all done, but there’s going to be some general traffic chaos across the city in the meantime,” says Baacke, who encourages members of the university community to leave their cars at home whenever possible and use public transportation.

The Lowell Canal Bridges Project was made possible by the $13.4 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which the city of Lowell secured in partnership with the university. Last year, the university pledged $3 million to the project.

The bridge construction is being managed by Mass DOT, which awarded a contract this spring to MAS Building & Bridge.