BRUNSWICK — A member of the citizen’s group advocating for rehabilitation of the Frank J. Wood Bridge is independently appealing a recent state and federal review that recommended replacing the bridge.
The Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, however, is not filing a formal appeal because group President John Graham said the battle for the so-called “Green Bridge” can still be won.
“They’re not taking the bridge down,” he said. “I don’t get in fights I can’t win.”
Graham said Tuesday that the group agrees with member Phinney White’s complaint that the Maine Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration insufficiently considered rehabilitation during a review of the bridge’s historic character.
But based on findings from that review, state and federal officials still believe that replacing the 85-year-old truss bridge, which carries Route 201 between Brunswick and Topsham, is the more cost-effective option, based primarily on figures from engineering firm T. Y. Lin International.
The bridge was found to be in “poor condition” by the FHA due to steel deterioration, which prompted the DOT to begin evaluating the structure in 2015.
In April 2016, it announced its intention to replace the bridge, triggering a series of reviews that are continuing.
In late June, the DOT and FHA made public their preferred alternative for replacement – a new steel girder bridge along an upstream alignment – based on findings from the past year.
The Friends criticized the decision on Facebook, but Graham said it isn’t a blow to their cause.
He said he has more faith that another ongoing review will stop the plans for replacement.
“(That’s) the law that actually has teeth,” Graham said, distinguishing it as a substantive review of historic properties, whereas the earlier review has a more procedural and advisory role in the process.
Yet he also acknowledged that the Friends’ argument is based on limited access to details of the state’s decision-making process and cost figures.
Graham also said while he believes the Friends have slowed the DOT, it’s been hard to gather the resources and information to put up an adequate challenge.
“The process has been a really big struggle about transparency, trying to get details,” Graham said, specifically a breakdown of the engineering analysis that explains why the state believes rehabilitating the bridge is cost-prohibitive.
DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said those numbers can be found on the agency’s website: http://bit.ly/2viYMHW.
Graham said those numbers aren’t detailed enough for what he would like to do, which is hire an independent consultant to evaluate the cost of rehabilitating the bridge.
He said he couldn’t find a consultant or firm close to Maine willing to do an independent review because none would “go up against MDOT.” Instead, the Friends pay a West Coast consultant $265 an hour, although he is unable to provide real analysis without better numbers.
Similar to what White claims in his appeal, Graham said the DOT jumped the gun when it announced in April 2016 its intention to replace the bridge, before the review process is finished.
Talbot countered the claim in a Wednesday email.
“The April 2016 public meeting was a previous element of MaineDOT’s ongoing public participation process and was held to inform the public that our in-depth engineering examination of the extent of repair of the bridge,” he said.
“While replacement was the preliminary recommendation due to the cost findings, it was recognized at that time that many additional environmental analysis would have to occur … before final decisions were made,” he continued.
During that additional time, the Friends have found every opportunity to get a seat at the table. They’ve pressed for multiple, well-attended public meetings – more than would be typical if they didn’t exist, in the opinion of John Shattuck, economic and development director in Topsham.
Shattuck supports replacing the bridge, but said of the Friends Wednesday, “You have to take your hat off to their success, and their passion, and having the impact they’ve had.”
It is unclear whether White’s appeal will slow the review any further than ongoing efforts by the Friends have.
By the end of the summer, however, it may be too late: the preferred alternative to replace the structure is now under an environmental review that is scheduled to end in the coming months. If the design passes muster, it will go forward as the final decision, according to the DOT website.
Compared to the Wood bridge, Graham said the proposed design lacks character.
“In 100 years, there’s not going to be a group of citizens fighting for it,” he said.
Engineers perform repairs on the Frank J. Wood Bridge in August 2016. State and federal agencies are now close to finalizing a decision to replace the crossing, despite local appeals to rehabilitate the structure.