LEE -- Town officials have the green light for an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 bridge rehabilitation project that’s crucial to keeping Lee’s only remaining paper mill in business.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently gave the town permission to move forward to repair the Willow Street bridge, according to Christopher Pompi, the town’s public works superintendent.
The project calls for replacing the bridge’s sidewalk and its decking, along with other improvements.
Pompi expects the project to get under way in June, with the bulk of the work completed a year from now. He says the town’s Chapter 90 state highway funds will pay for refurbishing the bridge that will remain open during construction.
The span over the Housatonic River is the only direct link between Onyx Specialty Papers and Route 102 in South Lee, town and company officials said.
"There’s no other realistic way for them to access the mill," Pompi said. "Closing the bridge would put them out of work."
Pompi noted an alternate route between Onyx and Route 102 via Meadow and Pine streets wouldn’t be able to safely accommodate the truck traffic to the plant.
Currently, Onyx employs 140 people who operate the plant around-the-clock Monday through Friday and occasionally on Saturdays, according to the company president, Patricia Begrowicz.
"The bridge is absolutely essential to our business," she said.
Without it, Begrowicz said, "We couldn’t even run our mill."
MassDOT has ordering the bridge sidewalk closed over structural deficiencies, but Pompi said the span remains open to all vehicular traffic.
"The roadway is fine, there’s no weight limit, but we’re not taking any chances and moving forward with shoring up the entire bridge," he said.
Meanwhile, town officials expect a temporary bridge will replace another troubled crossing in South Lee by mid-December. Pompi said the interim span on Meadow Street over Powder Mill Brook is still on scheduled to be install before Dec. 15.
The existing bridge had been closed since March due to structural damage that included a two-foot hole in its decking.