Deadline nears for written comments on Brunswick-Topsham bridge replacement

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TOPSHAM — With a federal decision on whether to rebuild or rehabilitate the Frank J. Wood Bridge expected this summer, the Mt. Ararat High School Commons area was packed last week by those with sparring viewpoints on the structure’s fate.

Some see the 86-year-old bridge – which carries Route 201 traffic across the Androscoggin River between Brunswick and Topsham – as an aesthetic commodity that should be preserved. Others feel it is more sensible, from an economic standpoint, to build a new bridge.

Maine Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration officials presented copies March 28 of the project’s environmental assessment, and discussed various construction alternatives. The public has until April 11 to submit written comments at maine.gov/mdot/env/frankjwood, or to David Gardner, MDOT, Environmental Office, 16 State House Station, Augusta, ME  04333-0016.

The Federal Highway Administration will use the assessment’s findings to determine if an environmental impact statement should be prepared, and if the bridge project would produce major impacts on natural and cultural resources.

The FHA could decide this summer whether to rehabilitate or replace the 1932 truss bridge, according to Wayne Frankhauser Jr., bridge program manager with DOT.

The pros and cons of both options consumed the bulk of public comment last week. Opportunities for spoken comment will continue as the project’s final design process unfolds.

The 805-foot, three-span structure has one sidewalk and carries an annual daily traffic load of 19,000 vehicles. Nearly 10 bridges have stood on the site since 1795, according to DOT.

Rehabilitated in 1985, 2006 and 2015, the bridge requires improvements in order to raise the ratings of its superstructure and deck from “poor” to “good” condition, the DOT reports.

The agency prefers a rebuild option that would cost $13 million, last 100 years, and incur $17.3 million in estimated life service costs such as maintenance, Frankhauser said.

A new multiple-span, steel girder bridge would be curved and placed slightly upstream from the existing structure, and would span 835 feet, with sidewalks and bicycle lanes on both sides.

“We comfortably feel that we can design a replacement bridge to last 100 years,” Frankhauser told the audience. “With minimum, much less maintenance. Overall, a much more dependable structure than the past truss bridge.”

Rehabilitating the structure could cost $15-17 million at first, but would cost far more in the long run, DOT reports: between $35-38 million in estimated life service costs over a 75-year expected lifespan.

That option would include replacing the bridge’s steel floor system, parts of the truss bottom, utility hangers, and deck, and repairing concrete substructure units, painting the entire superstructure, and building a temporary upstream bridge to facilitate traffic flow during the project.

“I love the maintenance that you guys plan on doing with this bridge; it is awesome,” John Graham of Topsham, president of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge. “If you had done that for the last 60 years, we would not be standing here.”

Kevin Hoffman of Topsham acknowledged that the structure is indeed old and has corrosion issues, “but we’d also like to have the aesthetics and character of our town. You can replace a bridge, (but) you didn’t consider the aesthetics in your replacement option; you only considered a flat deck.”

Curtis Picard of Topsham, who heads the Retail Association of Maine, agreed with DOT’s preferred option. “The idea that it’s going to last 100 years, and it is a substantially lower cost than any kind of rehabilitation, is one of the driving issues that brings me to that decision,” he said.

If the rehab closes the bridge for 20 months, “there are going to be dramatic economic impacts to businesses,” Picard added.

Curtis Neufeld of Topsham, who is vice president of the Sitelines engineering firm in Brunswick, said he “enthusiastically” supports the upstream rebuild, noting that “the fiscal speaks for itself. The maintenance costs (for rehabilitation) would be deferred to our children over years.”

The life of the old bridge is “essentially up,” and a new bridge would be safer with wider shoulders and sidewalks, he said.

Gavin Engler, an architectural designer who lives in Brunswick, argued that structure is actually “the safest bridge for pedestrians that I can think of, primarily because the pedestrian walk is outside of the superstructure. There’s a physical barrier between the pedestrians and vehicular traffic, something that is totally missing from the new design.”

Engler called the proposed design “wildly inappropriate for joining Topsham and Brunswick,” and blamed DOT for allowing the bridge to become so rusty.

Nancy Randolph of Topsham, who has served both on that town’s Board of Selectmen and on the Brunswick Town Council, spoke from her experience fundraising for the rehabilitation of the Swinging Bridge, a pedestrian-only structure downstream of the Frank J. Wood Bridge.

“I am absolutely for a new bridge to serve us all well,” she said, adding that regardless of a “guesstimate” of how much it will cost to rehabilitate something, “it will always cost more. Because once you start picking it apart, it falls apart.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Wayne Frankhauser Jr., bridge program manager with the Maine Department of Transportation, discusses the issues prompting the agency to recommend replacement of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, which spans the Androscoggin River between Brunswick and Topsham.

John Graham of Topsham, president of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, was one of many people at a public hearing March 28 to speak in opposition of the state’s intention to rebuild the structure.

The Frank J. Wood Bridge has been rehabilitated three times since it was built in 1931-32, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.