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Frigid weather no match for Portland-Falmouth bridge builders

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Frigid weather no match for Portland-Falmouth bridge builders

PORTLAND — A $24 million project to construct a new bridge between Portland and Falmouth is on budget and on schedule.

The new Martin's Point Bridge, which has been under construction for more than a year, is on track to open in May, thanks to the efforts of a crew that works year-round, despite unusually bitter temperatures this winter at the windswept mouth of the Presumpscot River.

Jake Hall, field engineer for CPM Constructors, said the project is 75 percent complete. Beams have been installed for all 10 spans of the new bridge; concrete has been poured for nine out of 10 spans, and abutments on both sides have been installed.

The remaining work includes pouring concrete for sidewalks, vehicle barriers on both sides of the roadway, and the final span.

In mid-April, the bridge deck will be paved. In early to mid-May, the new bridge will open to traffic, Hall said.

The old bridge, which is still carrying U.S. Route 1 traffic on a narrowed deck, will be demolished by the end of the year. CPM Constructors will use large saws to remove the decking. Then, a barge will be used to either pull out the wood pilings or cut them off one foot below the mud line, Hall said.

Demolition of the eastern edge of the bridge may begin even before the new bridge opens, Hall said. The rest will be removed between May and December.

The existing Martin's Point Bridge was built between 1941 and '42. It was constructed with wooden piles instead of steel, because metals were in high demand for the war effort in Europe. Wooden-pile bridges are an endangered species in Maine, Hall said.

"Most of them are out of date," he said.

The progress on the new bridge is due in part to a willingness to work in all conditions. Even during the recent polar vortex, when wind chills across the bridge plummeted to 35 degrees below zero, a few workers were still on deck removing snow, Hall said.

Wintry weather does hamper progress, however. In addition to snow that occasionally buries the work site, cold temperatures prevent workers from pouring concrete, Hall said.

The air temperature has to be a minimum of 36 degrees and rising before concrete is poured, but 4o degrees and higher is preferable. Afterward, workers wrap the molds in insulating material and "heating hoses" to keep the mix at 50 degrees or higher until it cures.

The number of workers at the job site fluctuates with the seasons. In the warmer months, CPM employed 35 to 40 workers at the bridge. Currently, there are about 15, Hall said.

On a recent sunny day, temperatures began in the teens, then crept into the high 20s with light winds – a relative respite from the stunning temperatures from earlier that week. Construction worker Tom Ibbitson stood on the bridge deck that overlooks Mackworth Island, Fort Gorges and the Northern Atlantic and used a table saw to cut lumber for concrete molds.

"This is nice," Ibbitson said of the weather. "This is warm."

Ibbitson said the key to working outdoors through the winter is simple.

"Dress very, very warm," he said. "I wear double long-johns, three or four shirts."

Ibbitson, who goes by the nickname "Nascar," has worked on the bridge for two winters, and said this year's weather has been worse. He added that frostbite is a near-constant danger on windy days, but so far no one at the site has been afflicted.

"Not yet, thank God," he said. "Knock on wood."

Foreman George Hogan, who has been working on the project since May, is accustomed to working in frigid temperatures after serving on winter-time projects in Chicago and Montana.

"This is similar," he said of Maine this year. "I don't mind the cold. I'm used to it. I like being outside and it's a great view, especially when there's a good sunrise."

During months of shorter daylight hours, the work takes place each weekday between 7 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. The workers get two breaks to warm up: 15 minutes at 9 a.m. and 30 minutes at noon.

When construction is complete, the new Martin's Point Bridge will be the "widest two-lane bridge in the state of Maine," Hall said.

The bridge will be about 44 feet wide with a 5-foot sidewalk on the western side, 5-foot shoulders on both sides, two 12-foot vehicle lanes and a 10-foot multi-use path for cyclists, runners and pedestrians. There will also be two "bump-outs" on the eastern side to allow for recreational fishing.

The water depth below the bridge ranges between 10 and 14 feet at median low tide, according to nautical charts. Hall said the new bridge will allow for slightly higher clearance than its current 12 feet.

The bridge is designed to last 100 years, Hall said.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, agreed that the project is on budget and on schedule. So far, the construction crew has moved about 5,000 cubic yards of earth, placed about 5,100 cubic yards of concrete, driven 7,500 linear feet of pile and set 50 beams across 10 spans. Each beam weighs about 130,000 pounds, he said.

The crew has logged about 30,000 man-hours on the project since breaking ground in November 2012, Talbot said.

Ibbitson, who sports a bushy beard, said the coldest day on the bridge made him briefly consider life in an office.

"I said to myself, 'An office job wouldn't be that bad.' But, you know what? I like construction," he said. "I like working outside. An inside job wouldn't cut it, especially if it's pushing a pencil."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.