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Businesses share concerns with Maine Turnpike Authority about Exit 48 bridge replacement

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Businesses share concerns with Maine Turnpike Authority about Exit 48 bridge replacement

PORTLAND — There only seemed to be one option in the eyes of the 20 or so local business owners who attended the Maine Turnpike Authority's June 17, public meeting to receive feedback on three alternatives for a new Exit 48 bridge.

Eric Johnson, general manager of Berlin City Lexus said, the other two alternatives would result in financial losses in the hundreds of thousand dollars.

Exit 48 is the fourth busiest turnpike interchange in the state, supporting approximately 18,000 vehicles a day, according to the MTA. Closing the bridge and rerouting traffic, especially during the summer when the exit is a gateway to Route 302 and the lakes region, could be a dramatic loss to many businesses that rely on drive-by customers.

Built in 1955, the bridge has reached the "end of its useful life," Bob Driscoll, an MTA project engineer told the meeting attendees at the Howard Johnson hotel. The corroded bridge rail, drainage ways, concrete, and underside of the deck all need to be replaced, among other things. Additionally, he said, the bridge will need to be taller and cover a wider area in case of turnpike expansion in the future.

The MTA has come up with three designs for the new bridge. The first alternative will involve closing the bridge completely, shutting down the northbound on and off ramps.  The new bridge would be constructed using the same alignments as the old bridge, making this the cheapest and most sustainable option.

"We would be building on top of our existing footprint," Driscoll said.

The costs estimated for this alternative is $7.5 million and the project is expected to take approximately nine months. Traffic would be re-routed to Exit 47, which would be a "nightmare," Johnson said.

While the MTA explained that there were local businesses they had spoken to who preferred this option because it would be the fastest, there didn't seem to be anyone in the room who agreed.

The second alternative was acknowledged as perhaps the only other semi-possible option.  This alternative proposes building the bridge immediately adjacent to the north of the existing bridge, which would result in closures of  only the northbound on-ramp, keeping the off-ramp open. Northbound traffic getting on the turnpike would be rerouted to Exit 47.

This change would bring costs up to $8 million, mostly because of alignment changes to the new bridge's embankments. Because the bridge is built on soft clay, expensive light-weight fill must be used to ensure stability of the embankment.

Estimated time for this alternative is anywhere from 14 to 18 months, including two phases of construction (as opposed to one for the other two alternatives). The majority of work would be done at night because of safety concerns with traffic traveling below the bridge.

This large amount of night work was a huge concern for both Mark Heisler and Richard Kelly, who manage the nearby Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inn, respectively. Disturbance of guests was their main concern, especially since this option would involve construction during two summers.

The third and final alternative involves constructing the new bridge to the north of the existing bridge, which would allow the current bridge to stay completely open to all traffic. This would raise costs to $8.5 million because of additional fill needed for new embankments. Construction would take an estimated 12 months, and some night work would be involved.

This alternative is the most expensive and least sustainable option because it is the most invasive to streams and wetland areas, according to the MTA; but it was the consensus of the business owners because of its ability to keep traffic flow normal.

Local business owners were distressed at the thought of closing the bridge completely, because much of their business relies on traffic coming off the turnpike. A detoured route may take potential customers away from their businesses and result in large financial losses.

"Ninety percent of our business is from people who use the turnpike and many people say they chose us because of how close we are to the turnpike," the owners of Vance Pool Co. said.

Johnson, of Berlin City, said that of his "100 employees, 80 are on commission.  That's 80 families being affected by closing this bridge."

A decision is expected in July, with construction expected to begin sometime in winter or spring of 2011. 

In the meantime, MTA is taking public questions and comments at Bpelletier@maineturnpike.com.