Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 13, 2014
MDOT outlines issues for Falls Bridge project
Photos provided by the Maine Department of Transportation show the original Falls Bridge in South Blue Hill which was replaced in 1926 by the current bridge. MDOT is in the preliminary design phase of a project that will either replace or substantially rebuild the bridge.
by Rich Hewitt
The Maine Department of Transportation is still several years away from any construction on the Falls Bridge, but officials last week gave residents plenty to think about at an informational meeting about the project.
Andrew Lathe, an MDOT project manager, and Michael Wright, a bridge designer with the department, laid out what they know about the bridge and what people want and need to know as well as what they don’t know.
The bridge is 88 years old. It was built in 1926 to replace another bridge at the same site. According to Wright, the average daily traffic count is 1,790 vehicles. It is a narrow bridge, just 20 feet 4 inches wide. There have only been two accidents at the site in the past three years, one involving speed; the other, a deer.
Surprisingly, the MDOT has not tested the bridge to determine its weight limit. The department plans to do those tests as part of the preliminary design process and residents urged them to do it quickly and to post the bridge accordingly.
According to Wright, the department is considering two options for the site: a major reconstruction of the existing bridge or replacement with a modern bridge.
A major rehabilitation of the bridge would involve removing decaying concrete from all areas of the superstructure, including the distinctive arches, and completely replacing the concrete deck as well as work to strengthen the granite abutments on either side of the bridge. It would include improvements to the approaches, upgrading between 200 and 250 feet on either side of the bridge. The plan would widen the approach road to 28 feet and add an 8-foot shoulder on the northwest corner of the bridge to create a “more formal” parking area near where people already park.
The rehab would cost about $5.1 million and would extend the life of the bridge by about 30 to 40 years, Wright said.
Bridge replacement would construct a modern bridge in the same site with the same alignment, although Wright said that the bridge deck would be between two and four feet higher to accommodate new structural supports. The underclearance—the distance between the bottom side of the bridge and the water—would remain the same, he said. The replacement project would include the same work on the approaches to the bridge. Although a replacement bridge has not been designed, Wright said that the design of a modern bridge would likely be similar to the new bridge over Route 175 in Orland Village.
A new bridge would be wider, 28 feet with two 11-foot travel lanes and 3-foot shoulders, with no dedicated walkways. The modern design would improve visibility, Wright said, and it would have a life expectancy of 75 years or more. A new bridge would cost less, about $4 million, and the construction time would be shorter—one and a half years for a new bridge compared to two years or more for the repairs.
The construction time frame will be a factor for travelers on that road. For both options, Wright said, the easiest and safest way to do the project will be to close the road completely to traffic during the entire construction time. In that case, the MDOT would detour traffic either through Brooklin and Sedgwick village onto Route 172, a distance of as much as 21 miles, or a detour across the Hales Woods and Hales Hill roads in Brooklin, a detour of about 9.5 miles. The second detour poses a problem because the two roads are local roads and the department can’t just install signs marking them as a detour route.
“Those are local roads,” Wright said. “We need to have the town’s OK to do that.”
Other factors in the decision
Lathe explained that local opinion would weigh heavily in the decisions the department makes about the bridge, but he stressed that there are other organizations and agencies that also will have a say on the project.
There are archaeological issues—evidence of people living along the shore in the area as much as 4,000 years ago. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission is very interested in the site and plans to conduct a dig in the area next summer.
MHPC also has an interest in how the project would affect historic homes in the area, including the Nevin House and the home of the late Frank Hamabe.
In addition, the bridge itself is a historic structure, Lathe said. “It is one of two tidal arch bridges in the state, and it is possibly the oldest bridge of its kind in the United States,” he said.
There are also environmental concerns. There is a wide variety of wildlife in the area, sea birds, fish, marine mammals and other animals such as the long-eared bat. Some of those are or may be listed as endangered or threatened. Concerns for those animals could restrict construction activities to between November and March.
Those other groups, Lathe said, provide the department with a lot of unknowns about how they will be able to proceed with the project. They don’t know how MHPC would respond to a plan to replace the historic bridge and what sort of design the commission might want to see in its place.
Given the presence of historic buildings in the area, Lathe said, they don’t know how difficult it will be to establish a construction site there. And they don’t know how residents feel about any of the ideas the department has developed, if they care about the bridge design, who uses the bridge and the area around it and do residents want the department to make it more accessible for that casual, recreational use.
Getting the answers to some of those questions, he said, was part of the reason for the meeting. “This is a fact-finding meeting for us,” he said.
Safety has been a primary concern at the bridge site given the narrow approaches, the steep hill and the speed at which motorists travel through that area. Residents renewed those concerns.
Crocker Nevins said he was concerned that if the department improved the area and attracted more people to the site, it might increase the chances of someone getting hurt. Others weighed in and suggested that better roads will result in higher speeds for vehicles traveling over the bridge posing a danger to pedestrians and other visitors in the area.
Tim Seabrook said the historical significance of the bridge was important to the area but also indicated that safety was also an important factor. He suggested that the department preserve the existing bridge design but find a way to install a walkway on the side to provide safe access for pedestrians and bicycles.
“You’d have people on the outside and cars and trucks on the inside,” he said. “Everyone could be happy and safe.”
The idea of closing the road for up to two years and detouring traffic raised a number of concerns for residents. Jan Crofoot urged the department to make improvements to Route 172 if it intended to use it as a detour.
John Candage questioned the use of the Hales Woods and Hales Hill roads as a detour. He estimated that the paved area on those roads was only about 16 feet and that there would not be room for two large trucks to pass each other.
Annette Candage noted that she and her husband run a lobster dealership out of the town pier and that they have a lot of traffic coming over the Falls Bridge to the pier—bait and fuel going one way and lobsters going the other. It “needs to be thought out how we’re going to deal with that,” she said. “We want it to be safe, but we also need to look out for our business.”
Selectman Jim Schatz agreed, noting that the existing 20-foot width of the road creates a challenge for the heavy truck traffic that needs to cross the bridge. “That’s a challenge,” he said, “If you stay with that width, you need to figure out how to manage that and not hurt the industry down there.”
In response to questions from a fisherman, Wright said that there may be times during the construction when the ability to bring a boat in and out of Salt Pond may be affected.
By a show of hands, a large majority of the 70 or so people attending favored keeping the old bridge and repairing it.
Others argued that if the department decides to build a modern bridge, the design should be something more appealing than the sample bridges they had provided.
Lathe said that they can work with the department as a whole on those kinds of ideas. However, both he and Wright noted that anything beyond the standard design will add to the cost of the project. State and federal dollars will pay for the basic bridge construction but the cost of any enhancements such as walkways or expanded design work, will require local funding.
“There’s no federal money to pay for that and the state is not going to go it alone,” he said. There will be a local cost, he said.
Schatz asked that the town be involved in discussions about enhancements as soon as the project has progressed that far. He said the selectmen have not yet discussed if or how the town might get involved.
There will be another informational meeting this summer. In late 2015 or early 2016, the department will settle on an option and work on the design during 2016-17. Construction should begin in 2018.