NEWBURYPORT — After five years and $318 million, the final milestone in the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge project was achieved Tuesday afternoon with the official ribbon cutting for the William Lloyd Garrison Trail.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito were joined by Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray, Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington, state Rep. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, and state Department of Transportation Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver on the first-of-its-kind shared-use path Tuesday afternoon.
“This was what we call one of our mega projects,” Gulliver said. “Our mega projects are really special things. There is a lot that goes into making them a reality.”
The major construction project replaced the previous six-lane John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge on Interstate 95 with a pair of bridges carrying eight lanes across the Merrimack River. Four adjacent bridges were also replaced.
Baker said the project was a “monstrous undertaking.”
“I know, for all of you it took forever,” Baker said. “If it makes you feel any better, it took forever for all of us, too. But today is a great day and an opportunity to celebrate a job well done by so many people.”
Baker went on to say the project, which improved four miles of interstate highway, was “hugely complicated.”
“In some ways, the shared-use path and all the lanes that travel on this bridge and highway represent a big step forward in the commonwealth and for (MassDOT) and how we think of trying to combine the best of both worlds in terms of transportation and sensitivity to the environment,” Baker said.
Holaday, a member of the Whittier Bridge Working Group along with Gray and Harrington, said she and fellow members approached the state seven years about remediation for area residents for the five years of construction they would have to endure.
“We told the Department of Transportation we want you to build a shared-use path so we can connect our rail trails from Amesbury to Newburyport to Salisbury,” Holaday said. “This is the first of its kind in Massachusetts and it is absolutely gorgeous.”
Kelcourse said he filed a bill on behalf of students from River Valley Charter School, Amesbury Innovation High School and Pentucket Regional High School a little over two years ago to see if they could get Whittier’s fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s name on one span of the bridge.
The bill, Kelcourse said, did not pass. But, he added, the students were pleased the shared-use path was named after Garrison.
“Because of the students and their hard work, we have the Garrison shared-use path,” Kelcourse said. “I am really, really glad to have been a part of that process.”
Chris Bryant, the president of the John Greenleaf Whittier Home and Museum, said she believes the 19th century Amesbury poet would have enjoyed seeing the bridge named after him.
“Being a humble man, I am sure Whittier would have been embarrassed the bridge was named after him,” Bryant said. “But also he would probably be secretly pleased because the bridge spans the river that he loved and he would have been rightly amazed of the splendor of this brand new bridge.”
Whittier’s great-, great-, great-grandnephew, James Reid, who was present for the initial bridge dedication in 1954, also attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday along with his grandson, Reid Jackson Langlois.
“I am overwhelmed by this,” Reid said. “My great-, great-, great-granduncle wrote over 100 poems against slavery. He worked with Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery. He was just an exceptional poet and an exceptional person. I am proud to be related to him.”