PORTLAND — The Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors Tuesday sided with the local communities of Litchfield and Sabattus and voted to replace three bridges that some saw as expensive conveniences.
On a 7-1 vote, the board agreed to spend money to rehabilitate the bridges over the turnpike at Ferrin Road and Lunt's Hill Road in Litchfield and at Maxwell Road in Sabattus. The bridges at Maxwell and Ferrin roads will remain 14-foot-wide, one-lane bridges, while the one on Lunt's Hill bridge will be rebuilt in two-lanes.
The projects, expected to start with the Ferrin Road bridge in 2014 and end with the Maxwell Road bridge in 2017, altogether will cost the authority an estimated $5 million.
At least one board member, Robert Cloutier, argued against replacing the bridges, which he said amounted to a costly expense for a small volume of traffic and a few people.
The people who use the bridges have alternative routes to get to Route 197 and other roads, Cloutier said.
"I can't see us spending $5 million to give someone a five-minute shortcut," said Cloutier, Cumberland County's representative on the board.
Cloutier said the authority would likely have many more higher-priority capital projects that would require resources in the future.
But others on the board said these types of small, one-lane bridges were critical connectors in rural communities around Maine and their loss was more than the loss of a convenience.
"If we take it away, there will be some impact on local culture," said John Dority, Kennebec County's representative on the board.
Robert Stone, Androscoggin County's representative, said the authority should consider building the bridges with the future in mind, because the cost of doing it now would be less than in the future.
Stone said that given the 100-year estimated life span of the bridges, anticipating growth in the communities they serve and building the bridges bigger now made more financial sense.
One board member, Diane Doyle, York County's representative, said she was in favor of rebuilding the existing bridges but didn't think the authority should be predicting transportation needs for one community 100 years in the future.
Doyle said transportation modes and needs could change dramatically by then and the need for a wider bridge might not be the case.
Residents who attended the meeting Tuesday, including local elected officials and business owners, said they were satisfied with the decision to keep the status quo.
Rayna Leibowitz, chairwoman of the Litchfield Board of Selectmen, said the turnpike divides the town in three and without the bridges the town would be a disconnected community. She said the bridges were crucial to emergency response, especially for fire and rescue.
The position of the bridges allows the fire departments from other towns to come to Litchfield on mutual assistance more quickly, and the bridges are necessary to quickly shuttle water among parts of town.
The loss of the bridges could add as much as 6 to 8 miles between points in town, Gardiner Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky said. Litchfield contracts with Gardiner for ambulance service. Minkowsky said the bridges were also important in speeding transportation times for the 150 ambulance calls from the town each year.
Warren Mariner, the owner of Mariner Electric, said the bridges save time and mileage, and he was pleased the board agreed to keep them all in place.
"I'm satisfied they are going to leave it the same as it is," Mariner said after the meeting.