Controversy swirls around replacing Brunswick-Topsham bridge

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BRUNSWICK — A final plan for replacement of the Frank J. Wood Bridge is expected to be released by the end of summer.

If the decision is to replace the bridge — the likely scenario, given the positions of the state and federal governments — a local grassroots group advocating for the structure’s preservation says it is prepared to take the fight to federal court.

The future of the 86-year-old bridge, which connects Brunswick and Topsham by carrying Route 201 traffic over the Androscoggin River, has been debated for several years, with some advocating for its rehabilitation, and others pushing for a total replacement.

In June 2017, the Maine Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration released a statement that said replacing the aging bridge with a new one at a nearby upstream location was their “preferred alternative.”

According to state documents, the new bridge would include two 11-foot lanes, two 5-foot shoulders and two 5-foot sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. It would be a steel girder bridge supported by concrete abutments and piers on ledge.

In a July 2 email, state highway department bridge program manager Wayne Frankhauser Jr. wrote that is still the preferred option, although the decision has not been finalized.

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“The final decision will be documented at the completion of the National Environmental Policy Act process, currently projected for late summer 2018,” Frankhauser said.

Nancy Singer, public affairs specialist for the Federal Highway Administration, confirmed Frankhauser’s information via email July 2, when she said the “environmental process” for the project “is still being completed.”

According to the environmental assessment posted to the Department of Transportation website, National Environmental Policy Act regulations “direct (Federal Highway Administration) to take into consideration the environmental consequences of proposed federal actions.” As a result, the environmental assessment “analyzes potential environmental impacts” of each of the project options.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966 also prohibits the Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation agencies from using land from “public and private historic properties” unless there is “no feasible and prudent alternative to that use and the action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property resulting from such a use,” according to the Federal Transit Administration website.

A draft evaluation related to the act is included in the environmental assessment.

Frankhauser said Maine DOT and the Federal Highway Administration are seeking comments from the public until July 11 and “consulting party input” to address the project’s effect on historic properties, including Cabot Mill. 

Comments received, he said, will be considered in developing final mitigation measures.

Prior to its statement last summer, the state first announced its intention to replace the structure in April 2016. 

The rebuild option would cost $13 million, last 100 years, and incur $17.3 million in estimated life service costs, Frankhauser said at a March 28 public hearing on the bridge.

And, while replacement has been touted as the preferred course of action for more than two years, Friends of Frank J. Wood Bridge, a local grassroots group, has been pushing just as long for the structure to be rehabilitated.

On June 27, a meeting for consulting parties was held at Topsham Town Hall that included a project update and remarks from Federal Highway Administration officials and a representative from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

John Graham, president of Friends of Frank J. Wood Bridge, said July 1 there was “no new news” that came out of the meeting that the group wasn’t aware of last summer.

He added, however, he thinks the process is “a long way from being done,” and said the Federal Highway Administration sent two attorneys from Washington, D.C., to sit in on the meeting, which means the government organization is “aware of the controversy of (the) project.”

“It’s a long way to send somebody there — they don’t just go to these things, it’s not customary for these people to show up,” he said.

His organization has been frustrated throughout the process of advocating to keep the bridge, due to difficulties receiving information from the state.

One of the Friends’ major concerns with the proposed new bridge, he added, is a non-working fish ladder at the site.

Graham said, “It’s been known for probably 10 years that the fish ladder doesn’t work.”

According to documents retrieved by the group through a Freedom of Information Act last year, he added, dam owners are “fine” with the bridge being moved closer to the dam, as long as the state takes over liability of the fish ladder.

Graham said the new bridge would encroach “pretty drastically” into the area where a new fish ladder could be placed, and a new ladder would also add cost to the project.

“Alternative 2 may look OK right now, (but) we need to put $11 million into the fish ladder — it’s twice the price of rehabilitation and a little more than twice and a third more than the new bridge,” he said. “So it doesn’t add in.”

Though it is too early to say, if the state releases the final Environmental Assessment and concludes it will go forward with replacing the bridge, Graham said his group’s next step would be to take its case to federal court.

He added, however, he is doubtful a decision will be released as projected.

“They say August,” he said, “(but) the way this project is going, I’d be surprised if we see anything before mid- to late fall.”

A final decision on whether the state will rebuild or replace the Frank J. Wood Bridge between Brunswick and Topsham is expected by the end of the summer. (Elizabeth Clemente/The Forecaster)

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