Brunswick-Topsham bridge decision still months away

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BRUNSWICK — The fate of the Frank J. Wood Bridge will hang in the balance for at least another four months, based on discussions at a town workshop Monday.

The Department of Transportation also reported that short-term repairs to the bridge, prompted by an August inspection, will take place over four weeks this November.

The Town Council organized the workshop to gather more information around whether to replace or rehabilitate the bridge, which carries Route 201 over the Androscoggin River. The council invited representatives from the DOT and the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge to answer questions councilors submitted in June, answers that would influence the council’s decision on whether to endorse a specific plan. 

But representatives from both groups said the meeting was premature, given that their respective positions depend on a continuing review by the Federal Highway Administration, anticipated to be complete in December.

Ultimately, the FHA will have the final say on the fate of the bridge. The agency began its review in June and will enlist the help of six other agencies to consider all options for either rehabilitation tor replacement.

DOT project manager Joel Kittredge estimated that about 80 percent of the cost of the bridge project will be federally funded.

The Friends and the council also await analysis in the DOT’s forthcoming preliminary design report.

‘Cart before the horse’

Friends’ attorney Steve Hinchman spoke first, and prefaced his answers to the council’s questions by calling the workshop premature. 

Of the DOT,  Hinchman said, “We asked, ‘Why are you asking the towns (Brunswick and Topsham) to endorse an alternative before you know all the alternatives?'”

The possibility of “alternatives” is the crux of the campaign by the Friends, who, in an ideal scenario, would like to see the bridge rehabilitated and preserved, but argued Monday night that their ultimate mission is pushing for a balanced and thorough inquiry into all possible outcomes for the bridge.

Members of The Friends, a grassroots nonprofit with more than 1,000 likes on their Facebook page, have claimed since last spring that the DOT failed to conduct such an inquiry before proposing a plan for replacement last April.

Hinchman criticized the entire process as backward, explaining that only after the FHA has conducted an extensive review should the DOT consider what to do about the bridge.

“Why are we putting the cart before the horse?” he said after the meeting. Hinchman prefaced his earlier remarks by saying that there are “shades of gray” between rehabilitation and total replacement.

In July, the Friends submitted a list of gray areas to the FHA, in the form of alternatives the group believes ought to be considered in the review process. Among them are several options for rehabilitation.

When it came time to answer the council’s questions, many of which assumed a background in engineering, Hinchman and his fellow present Friends members John Graham and Scott Hanson couldn’t provide many specific answers. 

“We’re not professional engineers,” Graham said, deferring to the DOT for technical and cost-related analysis.

Instead, Graham, Hinchman and Hanson questioned the DOT’s approach when considering all options. For example, they referred to a DOT analysis that claimed rehabilitation would cost about $8 million to extend the bridge lifespan another 30 years; a replacement, on the other hand, would cost about $11 million and last upwards of 75 years.

Based on their research, the Friends noted that a lifespan should always be stated as a range, the DOT “assumed the worst-case scenario for rehabilitation and the best case for a new bridge.” He said the best and worst should be assumed for both.

After the meeting, Hinchman said the Friends were advocating for a rehabilitation cost that is cheaper, equal, or reasonably more expensive – “reasonably” meaning “within 5 percentage points” of the replacement cost.

But he added the value of the bridge isn’t just monetary. “We don’t need another high-speed concrete slab bridge,” he said.

Repairs, recent developments

The DOT’s Kittredge responded to the council’s questions in written form prior to the workshop and took follow-up questions from councilors, many of which had to do with an August inspection of the bridge that found the need for major repairs.

Kittredge said the August findings were serious enough to prompt a reduced weight posting and the scheduled repairs this November, during which there will be a one-way detour.

The repairs will keep the bridge up to safety standards for another five years, which will hold the department over until it embarks on either rehabilitating or replacing the bridge. 

Many of the remaining questions – most having to do with cost analysis and safety concerns for bicyclists – will rely on information provided in the DOT’s forthcoming preliminary design report.

Councilors will wait until a full council meeting to decide whether to endorse a plan.

 Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

The 84-year-old Frank J. Wood Bridge between Brunswick and Topsham.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.