Bridges at risk
By Scott Leach, MBTA President
During the past months, a drama has been unfolding in the coastal community of Ellsworth, Maine. In late January of this year, the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) announced to city officials that the condition of the Graham Lake bridge on Route 180 had deteriorated to such an extent that the department was going to have to restrict traffic on the bridge to just 40,000 lbs. The bridge is part of a critical connection between Ellsworth and Bangor, and the threat of posting created a significant public uproar from city officials and local business owners.
The story has a happy, if temporary, ending: MaineDOT was able to erect a temporary bridge that would support weights of 100,000 lbs. in both directions. That is enough to allow city snowplows and fire trucks and the majority of the heavy commercial traffic to cross the bridge. Businesses and city officials were quieted. Local residents were inconvenienced only with a short closure of the bridge, while MaineDOT crews put the temporary bridge in place.
While it is commendable that the MaineDOT was able to swiftly respond to a major public safety issue in Ellsworth, we would be foolish if we didn’t recognize a much bigger problem exists. Even as MaineDOT formulates a plan for permanent repairs to the Graham Lake bridge, we need to be looking at the other more than 100 Maine communities where posted bridges are or will soon become an issue. Earlier this year, MaineDOT’s Bridge Management section identified a staggering 288 bridges under its jurisdiction that, like the Graham Lake bridge, may be on the verge of becoming public safety risks (see MaineDOT Chief Engineer John Dority’s column about the looming bridge crisis in this issue, page 51). Sixty-nine of those state-maintained bridges already have been posted. People take their transportation infrastructure for granted, until they can’t use it.
That’s exactly what the Ellsworth region discovered this winter, and what diverse communities such as Portland, Bangor, Fort Kent, Freeport, Falmouth, Biddeford, Skowhegan, Presque Isle, Shapleigh, Waterboro and Wilton — to name just a few — will face in the next 10 years if we don’t do something soon. We have a network of highways and bridges spanning our state that have safely carried our children and grandchildren to school, our spouses to work and our products and services to our customers. Now that it’s almost gone, maybe now, the public will recognize the dangerous and economically disastrous consequences of the continued underfunding of our transportation infrastructure.
In Ellsworth, until the temporary span was in place, some motorists were driving across the frozen lake in order not to be inconvenienced. The MBTA has, since its founding, advocated for investment in a safe and efficient transportation system in our state and region. But we can’t do it alone. During the past nine months, we have been actively recruiting a coalition of state and community leaders willing to take this issue on.
The coalition is working with our legislative leaders to establish long-term, realistic, stable and adequate transportation funding that will fix our roads and bridges that are falling into worse repair every day. The simple truth is this: transportation is a keystone of economic development and public safety, and without adequate funding, our collective ability to conduct business and to protect the public welfare will be gone.
That became startlingly clear to the city of Ellsworth earlier this year. And because the problem is not just about one bridge in one community, but hundreds of bridges in communities the state, we need to make sure we use our collective influence to advocate for a substantial and long-term solution. I hope you will join the MBTA in the effort to expand our coalition and fight for highway funding. Contact your legislative and congressional leaders. Encourage your friends, co-workers and community leaders to participate in the discussion.
In closing, I want to thank our board of directors and the members who have so far given generously of their time and taken a leadership role in this fight. Particularly, I would like to recognize the efforts of the many business leaders within MBTA and ACM who have met with legislative leaders of both parties to bring this issue to the forefront. One firm, Pike Industries, even created its own calendar of bad roads in the state. Now that is a way to grab people’s attention. I also look forward to seeing you all at upcoming MBTA events this spring and summer, including our annual meeting on May 3 in Augusta, the Washington County meeting June 14 and the Infrastructure Golf Tournament on July 12. Watch your mail, e-mail and our web site for information about these and other special events, as well.