Bridging the gap
After losing out on a TIGER grant, MaineDOT and NHDOT wrestle with funding options to address problems with the Memorial and Sarah Long bridges
Questions still remain as to what will happen with the Memorial Bridge and Sarah Mildred Long Bridge that span the Piscataqua River between Kittery, Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Officials from both states’ departments of transportation have been wrestling with how to address the bridge needs of the two communities
since February of this year. That is when the NHDOT and MaineDOT learned that their joint grant request for $70 million to fix Memorial and Sarah Long bridges was rejected in the first round of TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant funding.
What to do about the aging bridges is the focus of the Maine-New Hampshire Connections Study due to be completed in July of this year. Still, area residents and elected officials, particularly on the New Hampshire side of the river, are anxious to keep their funding options open. In mid-May, the New Hampshire Senate voted to approve an amendment to the Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan. It allows the NHDOT to seek up to $45 million in additional bonds to replace the Memorial Bridge. That preemptive move came because there are concerns among New Hampshire state leaders about securing funding for the bridge. “Our fear is that if we were to wait. . . a year from now, we may have to close the Memorial Bridge,” New Hampshire Senator Martha Fuller Clark told those present at a May 6 Portsmouth meeting about the bridge. NHDOT Commissioner George Campbell has since stated that NHDOT fully supports completion of the joint bridge study that is currently underway, per both states’ December 2008 Memorandum of Agreement.
Meanwhile, according to Gerry Audibert, MaineDOT project manager for the Maine-New Hampshire Connections Study, the study is expected to be completed by July of this year. The study was begun in March 2009 and has been exploring options for the future of the two bridges and working with community members to “identify and evaluate feasible long-term transportation strategies that facilitate the safe, secure and effective multimodal movement of people and goods across and upon the Piscataqua River,” according to the study’s purpose and need statement.
No recovery funds
MaineDOT and NHDOT submitted a bi-state application for rehabilitation of the Memorial Bridge last September under the American Resource and Recovery Act (ARRA) TIGER grant program, knowing that nationwide competition would be fierce. The USDOT announced in February that the two-state bridge project had not received a TIGER grant. This wasn’t a complete surprise, considering how competitive the process was. The $70 million joint grant request was one of more than $50 billion in projects vying for $1.5 billion in recovery grant funds. “Still, only the top three percent of projects were funded,” said Audibert.
Audibert said a second round of TIGER funding has become available, but the pot of money is much smaller (only $600 million, minus $140 million for “rural” projects) and competition for the funding will be even greater. Maine has not yet decided if it will apply for TIGER II for this effort.
State officials and FHWA will now complete the Maine-New Hampshire Connections Study. That study is being followed closely by residents on both sides of the river, said Audibert, and has yielded important information. With an active steering committee and stakeholder committee, as well as more than 15 public meetings to date, an abundance of data and input have been gleaned from the two communities.
“The study has gone very well and the level of interest and input we’ve gotten has been terrific,” said Audibert. He said that the study included a bicycle/pedestrian survey that yielded valuable information, and community forums have given the two-state team a strong sense for the historic and community needs on both sides of the river. Both bridges are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2009 the National Trust for Historic Preservation added Memorial Bridge to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, although the latter designation has no legal significance.
“The Memorial Bridge was the largest vertical lift bridge of its day – it had a twin on the West Coast. It was dedicated in honor of the region’s World War I veterans,” said Audibert. Working with the committees and the public, study leaders have learned that the Memorial Bridge and the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge each play a different but important role in connecting the communities of Kittery and Portsmouth.
HNTB Corporation, of Westbrook, is leading a team of eight other consultants in performing the fast-track study for MaineDOT and NHDOT. A preliminary report released in early May listed the potential cost of repair or replacement of the two bridges at between $190 million and $290 million. The costs will likely change as the alternatives are refined and optimized. The final report is due by the end of June.
There is definitely a sense of urgency on both sides of the river. The condition of the bridges, particularly of Memorial Bridge, is a concern.
“It’s in very poor shape,” said Audibert. The bridge was closed for six weeks last year for emergency repairs to a truss plate. When it reopened, a three-ton weight limit was imposed. That weight limit cannot be reduced any further, and the life expectancy of the bridge now stands at no more than three years.
The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge is also in poor condition. Although its life expectancy is longer than that of Memorial Bridge, it has an expected remaining life of five to seven years without substantial investment or it will risk closure as well. As a result of last summer’s detailed inspection, that bridge is now posted at 20 tons.
The combination of investment needs and timing is of significant concern to all involved. While the study will determine the long-term solution, the implementation of the solution will be equally, if not more difficult, to achieve. While MaineDOT is committed to completing the study, it may not be able to meet everyone’s needs. MaineDOT faces a $3 billion unmet need over the next 10 years, so difficult prioritization decisions must be made.