BEEP, BEEP, BEEP sounding off from construction trucks backing up. Tires rolling over steel plates, milled and torn-up roads. Pipes stretching across sidewalks and roads. The smell of heat radiating from freshly laid asphalt.
Marblehead has witnessed a flurry of construction and roadwork this summer, with local drivers and commuters dodging orange cones and navigating a maze of street-closure detours.
Between 2020 and June 2023, there have been about 38 construction and road projects, according to Marblehead Public Works Director and Water and Sewer Superintendent Amy McHugh.
McHugh told the Marblehead Current that the work may seem never-ending to frustrated residents and businesses, but she stressed that more often than not, methodical coordination and decision-making underlie each project. McHugh collaborates with utility companies and town departments — National Grid, Comcast, Verizon, Marblehead Municipal Light Department, Water and Sewer Department and Marblehead Department of Public Works — to upgrade aging infrastructure.
“When you want a street paved, expect four years of inconvenience,” she said. “There’s so much old infrastructure; we can’t just pave everywhere immediately.”
Much of Marblehead’s infrastructure under streets dates back generations. Cast-iron gas and water mains from the 1920s remain in service, as do clay sewer pipes from the 1890s and drainage lines from the post-WWI era.
“All of the work has to happen separately because we are all in the same underground footprint. Everybody needs space — so they have to go one at a time,” McHugh said. “Each utility needs its own specialized equipment and space to work.”
That is why McHugh’s crews and the utility companies can’t pursue multiple projects on the same street at the same time. The work must happen in a sequence. In New England, infrastructure projects are also mostly restricted to summer months. Gas line work is the only exception that sometimes continues through winter.
“We have a pavement assessment that shows roads rated in different colors so we knew where they were,” explained McHugh. “Before we begin paving, we look at gas, water and sewer and other utility needs.”
The water distribution system under the Water and Sewer Commission’s oversight includes more than 83 miles of water mains, a storage tank, over 845 hydrants, two booster pumping stations and a billing system for over 8,000 customers. The commission also oversees the wastewater collection system, which encompasses 28 lift stations and more than 100 miles of pipe, directing wastewater to the South Essex Sewerage District for treatment.
McHugh noted that they spent $1.2 million of the $12.5 million earmarked for sidewalk and pavement repairs and upgrades in a $25 million debt exclusion that voters approved in 2021.
“I won’t pave until the infrastructure is upgraded,” she stated.
The Pleasant Street and Bessom Street project demonstrates lengthy utility coordination before repaving. Slated for repairs years ago, gas line upgrades happened first, unearthing old trolley tracks. With that complete, water mains were replaced to improve fire flows. Concurrently, aging stormwater drainage is being upgraded.
McHugh believes the finished product will justify intermediate frustrations, confident the infrastructure overhaul will benefit the neighborhood for decades.
McHugh asks for patience as construction continues.
Ellen Berry lives on what one might call this season’s construction epicenter: Where Bessom Street and Pleasant Street meet.
“I understand that they are trying to get all this work done,” Berry told the Marblehead Current. “We actually live in a town where they are proactive about all this.”
While Berry acknowledges and appreciates the town’s proactive efforts, she, like many others, asks for clearer communication about the ongoing projects.
“The sticking point is communication,” Berry said. “I’d really like to know not just how long and when these projects begin and end but also what each project is for.”
Many residents and businesses have voiced complaints at Select Board meetings and in emails to McHugh about the constant construction noise, roads closed without notice and confusing detours on their daily commutes. Some downtown businesses have also attributed a dip in customers to construction.
Maria Torres, owner of Maria’s Gourmet on Bessom Street, said construction deters customers from patronizing her shop.
“People avoid coming into this area,” she said. “They know it’s going to take 15 extra minutes.”
While acknowledging infrastructure improvements help, Torres emphasized construction every summer hurts small businesses like hers that depend on bumps from summertime tourism.
McHugh pointed out that several modes of communication exist: public meetings before utility shutoffs, regular email updates and online notices.
When it comes to construction, it’s best not to have exceptions on substantial completion.
“Construction is unpredictable,” she acknowledged. “Managing expectations around timelines and delays remain challenging.”
While residents want repaving, McHugh stresses methodical planning.
“The worst thing we can do is spend paving money on a street someone else is gonna dig up in four or five years,” she said.
McHugh stressed that short-term headaches caused by street construction will give way to gains like improved water flow, drainage, traffic flow and safety once aging systems are upgraded.
“Staying focused on the long-term vision gets me through the short-term challenges,” she said. “Plus, it’s necessary work that needs to be done.”
At Village Pharmacy on Pleasant Street, pharmacist Sabino Russo said that while construction affects business, his loyal customer base and delivery service help offset challenges.
“We can get around that whole construction situation,” he said.
He advised patience, agreeing upgrades will benefit Marblehead long-term.
“There is very little wiggle room to get the construction done, based on weather, based on the school season,” he said. “We all have to have a little patience.”