Debate over 'Green Bridge' takes historic turn in Topsham, Brunswick

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

BRUNSWICK — If the Maine Department of Transportation has its way, the Frank J. Wood Bridge – known by most in Brunswick and Topsham as the “Green Bridge” – will be torn down.

In its place would be a new concrete bridge. The Topsham Board of Selectman has symbolically endorsed the plan, and the Brunswick Town Council is considering approval, too. The towns plan to set up a joint committee to consult with DOT on the new bridge design.

But opponents are making their opinion known.

Organizing under the banner of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, a few residents have started a Facebook page that has more than 800 likes. They have also authored a 21-page report arguing for preservation of the steel truss bridge, and distributed a petition opposing DOT’s recommendation.

“(We want) to ensure that the rehabilitation option is given full consideration before the decision is made to demolish the bridge,” group spokesman Scott Hanson said Monday after a meeting of the Brunswick Town Council.

Ultimately, the Frank J. Wood Bridge is a state bridge, on a state road. The DOT has the final say on what the department will do with the 85-year-old structure.

But the Friends see an avenue to push DOT towards preservation through a federal historic review process. The group, and the municipalities, each hope to exert enough influence to achieve the outcome they prefer.

A tale of two towns

In Topsham, the Board of Selectmen on June 2 unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing DOT’s proposal to replace the bridge.

The support was a reflection of the board’s belief in DOT’s recommendation that the structure should be rebuilt, as opposed to rehabilitated, according to Town Manager Rich Roedner.

“DOT has come back and said that it’s not cost-effective to renovate,” Roedner said. “Obviously you can renovate, but you’re … renovating again, perhaps, in a fixed number of years.”

DOT estimates repairing the Frank Wood Bridge would cost $10 million, and extend its life by 30 years. By contrast, building a new bridge would cost between $12-$13 million, and last 100 years.

Selectmen heard concerns, such as the impact of lighting, from residents living nearby. But board members felt that potential intrusions from a relocated bridge could be addressed through design work, Roedner said.

“If lights coming through are an issue, then you block the light,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you have to forego the bridge.”

The Topsham board was scheduled last week to appoint members to a joint Topsham/Brunswick Design Advisory Committee for a new bridge. But it tabled the matter until it is decided whether seven or eight members from each town will be chosen.

Across the river, the Brunswick Town Council had a harder time with a resolution to endorse the bridge design. Councilors tabled a draft resolution May 16 after hearing public comment on both sides of the issue, and did the same on Monday, June 6.

Councilors appear to be split on the question of replacement – some, like Councilor Dan Harris and Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman, have voiced strong interest in exploring preservation. Others, like Councilors Kathy Wilson and Alison Harris, clearly favor the idea of a new bridge.

At each public meeting about the bridge, residents have turned out for both positions. On Monday night, six people spoke in support of the new bridge, and eight against.

Those who support the new bridge trust MDOT’s financials and recommendation, and think a new bridge could be aesthetically pleasing if designed thoughtfully.

“To me, the MDOT proposal … (has its) engineering and poetry fundamentally right,” said Brunswick resident Claudia Knox. She said without the steel trusses, a new bridge would open up unseen “panoramas” of the river and historic mills.

“Experience tells me … the Frank Wood bridge seems (to be) both worn out and outdated,” she added.

Bruce Van Note, a former deputy commissioner of MDOT, said, “This particular project … definitely requires replacement.” He said the decision should be made by “state engineers.”

The Brunswick Development Corp. and the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber of Commerce have also endorsed the new bridge plan.

But preservation advocates say a rehab was never given a fair shot.

“The proposal (to replace the bridge) seems to us premature,” Hanson, the Friends’ spokesman, said. He alluded to similar bridges in states like Massachusetts that have been rehabilitated to survive another 75-100 years.

Brunswick resident Steve Stern, a retired engineer, said he “questions some of (DOT’s) values.” He helped author the Friends’ 21-page report, which asserts that DOT does not list the Frank Wood bridge as structurally deficient, and estimates that rehabilitation could be done much cheaper than the department claims.

The Friends argue that a proposed extra sidewalk factored into the preservation numbers is unnecessary; taking the associated costs out of the estimated budget would drop the total by $3.5 million, they wrote.

“Just in two weeks look at the information we came up with,” Stern said.

Councilors pushed back a vote on a resolution of support, asking to have representatives from the Friends and DOT available at a June 23 workshop to answer questions.

Councilor Steve Walker said he wanted more information before choosing to symbolically endorse a plan that may be a “foregone conclusion.”

He said “historic downtown investment” will be important to sustaining Maine’s tourism economy. In Brunswick, “this bridge defines the face of our community,” he said.

Councilor Jane Millett also wanted more information, saying she’d like “a rebuttal from MDOT.”

Brayman, the council chairwoman, said she still has not seen a list of detailed financial projections she had requested from the department.

Town Manager John Eldridge seemed exasperated by the drawn-out process, and urged councilors to give him more specific questions he could relay to MDOT before the June 23 workshop.

If councilors wanted to see more specific project costs, Eldridge said that would be possible: “I’ve seen them,” he said.

The 5-4 vote to table the resolution also means Brunswick has not yet appointed members to a consulting design committee with Topsham.

After the meeting, Hanson said, “We are pleased with the action of the Brunswick Council this evening.”

Historic review

Though getting the Brunswick Town Council to symbolically reject MDOT’s recommendation would help their cause, Hanson said their real avenue to preservation lies in the Section 106 historic preservation review.

The process gets its name from Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their work on historic properties, and gives the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation a reasonable opportunity to comment, according to Town Manager John Eldridge.

The Frank J. Wood Bridge is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Section 106 process allows members of the public to sign on as consulting parties to assess adverse effects to a historic structure. The consultation usually results in a memorandum of agreement that “outlines agreed-upon measures that the agency will take to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse affects,” according to a regulation summary.

The Brunswick Town Council and Topsham Board of Selectmen plan to be consulting parties. Multiple members of the Friends will be as well.

“We look forward to providing more information,” Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge member John Graham said as he left the meeting Monday.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann. Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Advocates say preserving the Frank J. Wood Bridge, seen here from the Brunswick side, was never given a fair look by the Maine Department of Transportation.

A rendering of the structure being proposed to replace the Frank Wood Bridge, looking towards Brunswick. MDOT estimates the $13 million bridge would last 100 years.