An image from the Maine DOT cameras recording traffic that passes over the Frank J Wood bridge. Courtesy of Maine DOT

A local group fighting the proposed removal and replacement of the Frank J. Wood Bridge in Brunswick and Topsham won a court battle Friday, when a Portland judge ordered the government to pay the organization and its co-plaintiffs nearly $84,000 in legal fees.

“As much as (Maine Department of Transportation) tried to claim that they had victory, we just got our court fees reimbursed,” said John Graham, president of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge. “That shows that we were victorious here.”

U.S. District Court Judge Lance E. Walker based his judgment on a January ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which ordered the Federal Highway Administration to reassess and clarify their approval of Maine Department of Transportation’s plan for the bridge.

Maine DOT considered the January ruling a victory, as it rejected several of the plaintiffs’ arguments, the Times Record reported.

Walker awarded the attorney and expert fees, which covered 70% of the plaintiffs’ legal costs, because some of the government’s arguments weren’t justified, he wrote. Yet he also noted the federal defendants may still reach the conclusion that the Frank J. Wood Bridge must be replaced.

The controversy surrounding the future of the bridge over the Androscoggin River has bubbled since the Maine DOT imposed a 25-ton weight limit in August 2016 following an inspection that showed the “rapid deterioration of structural steel.” According to court documents, the agency considered a plan to renovate the structure in order to extend its life by 75 years but determined it would be cheaper to destroy the bridge and construct a replacement that could stand 100 years.


The Frank J. Wood Bridge, one of the largest metal truss bridges built during the Great Depression, serves approximately 19,000 vehicles per day, according to court records.

Some citizens, devoted to preserving the original 1932 bridge, filed a lawsuit against DOT and the FHA in September 2019, arguing the agencies relied on inaccurate calculations when they determined the cost of rebuilding the structure ($17.3 million over 100 years) would be less than half the cost of renovating ($35.2 million over 75 years). The Historic Bridge Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States joined Friends of Frank J. Wood as plaintiffs.

According to the Department of Transportation Act, an agency can only approve the destruction of a protected historic site like the Frank J. Wood Bridge if an alternative plan would result in “operational costs of an extraordinary magnitude.”

The First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs that DOT and the FHA had erred by not discounting future costs to current dollar equivalents. It ordered the FHA to either justify its rationale or determine whether the difference between the discounted project estimates ($13.7 million to build a new bridge vs. $20.8 million to refurbish) is great enough to justify disturbing a historic site.

The agencies remained confident that their proposal would survive legal scrutiny, according to a January Times Record report.

“The Court’s opinion makes clear what MaineDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) already knew,” the agency said in a statement. “The cost of rehabilitating the Frank J. Wood Bridge is much greater than the cost of replacing it. The Court is requiring one additional factual finding, but we are confident that the result will be the same: the villages of Brunswick and Topsham are going to be connected by a new, safer bridge that better serves all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.”

The FHA has not yet produced an updated analysis detailing the cost of replacing the bridge, but Maine DOT’s three-year work plan, released in January, estimates the project will now cost over $33 million thanks to rising labor and material costs.

The rising cost of replacing the bridge, combined with Friday’s ruling, has given members of Friends of Frank J. Wood Bridge new hope they’ll be able to save the structure.

“We continue to wait to find out when and how Federal Highway will undertake a new and hopefully fair and honest analysis of the costs and remain convinced that without skewing the numbers to favor a new bridge, the law will require that the Frank J. Wood Bridge be rehabilitated to serve another century or more,” a group spokesperson wrote in a Facebook Post. “We will have funds now to continue the fight in court if necessary, and if not, the Friends will be in a better position to protect the bridge well into the future after it has been rehabbed.”

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