What’s next for our bridges?
Nearly four years after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and following postings in Kittery and Fort Kent, Maine has yet to identify a long-term solution for its backlog of deficient bridges.
This winter, MaineDOT unexpectedly posted the International Bridge connecting Fort Kent, Maine and Clair, New Brunswick. The deterioration of the 81-year-old bridge, which had been on the state’s bridge watch list for years, had raised concerns, particularly because it carries heavy truck traffic from the forest products industry. Still, the posting – which banned vehicles weighing more than three tons from traveling on the bridge – caught many in the community by surprise.
“We all knew it was an old bridge, but we didn’t realize it was in as bad a condition as it was,” said Jesse Jalbert, executive director of the Greater Fort Kent Chamber of Commerce. The posting put local residents and businesses on both sides of the border with Canada in a difficult position. For businesses like Irving Woodlands, it meant rerouting its trucks carrying wood products to the border crossing in Madawaska – an 80-mile round trip. Two mills even suspended operations because, with diesel prices at $4.50 per gallon, the detour was not cost-effective.
“The bridge is a tough one, because it has a lot of overflow from ice and water and it is older than many bridges,” said Representative Charles Kenneth Theriault (D-Madawaska). Theriault sits on the legislature’s Transportation Committee. He said the Fort Kent bridge is economically strategic, because “there are heavy trucks going to Canada where all our raw material from the sawmills is going to.”
According to Fort Kent Town Manager Don Guimond, the impact of the posting caused significant concern throughout the two communities. The posting hampered emergency vehicle traffic – both towns rely on the other’s fire and rescue teams as back up in the event of a fire, accident or other emergency. Local residents also found their movements restricted, because the three-ton limit included many pick-up trucks, a popular personal vehicle for many in the region.
“I would say the failing condition of the bridge really lit a fire under everyone,” said Guimond. In February, MaineDOT and the New Brunswick government announced a plan to allow one-way truck traffic to use the bridge, and both governments agreed to expedite construction of a new bridge. The mediated plan required installation of 11 signal lights controlled by computerized cameras and establishment of truck staging areas on both sides of the river.
‘We could have avoided this’
“This should not have been allowed to get to this point,” said Guimond. He notes that planning for a bridge replacement began more than two decades ago. In 2002, the two countries began the replacement effort in earnest, targeting replacement by 2008.
“Had that occurred, we could have avoided all this,” said Guimond. But economic and political circumstances intervened, and the replacement was delayed when provincial elections in the New Brunswick government caused the plan to be put on hold.
After the posting, the New Brunswick government announced that it is committed to funding its share of the bridge project. The first construction contracts are scheduled to go out to bid in June of this year, and the new bridge is slated for completion in 2014.
Despite the good news, the uncertainty and inconvenience of the bridge posting has taken its toll. Jalbert said that business in downtown Fort Kent is down noticeably from last year, and Guimond’s office continues to field a stream of complaints from residents living in the neighborhood that is being used as staging area for trucks waiting to pass over the bridge.
Rep. Theriault noted that Fort Kent is not the only international bridge in the region that’s due for replacement. “In prioritizing, this bridge has been on the schedule for a long time, but the Madawaska Bridge is long overdue and also heavily used by trucks,” said Theriault. “In fact, there is even more truck traffic now; because of a dispute in rail service, there are daily truckloads of paper from Twin Rivers mills going across our bridge to Canada to be shipped on Canadian National Railway.”
‘A dangerous line’
Maine and New Brunswick were lucky that bridge inspectors learned about the problems in Fort Kent before a serious accident occurred.
“The situation is not good for businesses and residents in Aroostook County, but it is a painful reminder of this dangerous line we are walking when it comes to bridge safety,” said Maria Fuentes, MBTA executive director. “We have very good inspectors, but we are really tempting fate every time we expect to get 10 and 20 additional years of service out of bridges that were built to last only 50 to 60 years.”
Fuentes said the memory of what happened in Minnesota just four years ago should serve as a warning. On August 1, 2007 the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13 people and injuring 100 more. Immediately following the disaster, the nation was in a state of shock, suddenly realizing that thousands of aging bridges across the country were crumbling before our eyes, and there was no plan to replace them.
In Maine, then-Governor John Baldacci issued an executive order, calling for a top-to-bottom review of the state’s bridge inspection and maintenance programs. The resulting 39-page report – Keeping Our Bridges Safe: A report on Maine’s bridge inspection and improvement programs – completed just four months after the Minneapolis disaster, offered a detailed plan for how Maine could address its growing backlog of aging and deficient bridges. The Maine Legislature responded in 2008 by establishing the TransCap fund as part of L.D. 1790: An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future. The legislature established a special pot of money to issue revenue bonds and put it in the newly created TransCap bridge fund – a one-time, four-year investment of $160 million that has served as a down payment on fixing Maine’s bridge problem.
Dividends or down payment?
A national report released earlier this year has raised questions about how far the nation – and Maine – has come in its efforts to fix its bridges. The Fix We’re In: The state of our bridges was released in April by the Washington-based advocacy group, Transportation for America. It ranked Maine 12th out of the 50 states for bridges in need of significant repair or replacement and said that 15.4 percent of its bridges are deficient compared with a national average of 11.5 percent.
The report captures a snapshot of data on Maine’s bridges based on the most recent information available from the Federal Highway Administration – data reported by Maine just as the state was embarking on the TransCap bridge program. MaineDOT Chief Engineer Ken Sweeney argues that the 2008 data doesn’t take into account all that Maine has done in the intervening years.
“It doesn’t reflect any of the Keeping Our Bridges Safe initiative, and that investment is starting to show dividends,” said Sweeney. He added that in the last few years, the state has put a significant amount of that $160 million in TransCap funding to work to replace, repair and perform critical early maintenance to more than 150 bridges. When combined with core bridge and stimulus funding, the total value of Maine’s four-year bridge investment is estimated at $452 million. That is $60 million shy of the $256-million-per-biennium investment called for in the governor’s bridge report.
Sweeney said that MaineDOT has spent more than half of the initial $160 million set aside in the TransCap Fund for bridges, and will spend down the remaining $55 million of the one-time bridge funds in the coming two-year work plan.
“We front loaded the work into the first two years,” said Sweeney. “We wanted to get out as much work as we could as quickly as possible.”
Sweeney noted that Maine’s share of federal stimulus funding also has helped. MaineDOT used stimulus funding for four bridge projects, including extra work on the Deer Isle-Sedgewick Bridge piers that will further extend the lifespan of that bridge’s rehabilitation.
MBTA’s Fuentes characterized the one-time infusion of special bridge funding created by the stimulus and TransCap as a “down payment” on a much bigger investment that is needed.
“The TransCap program was great, but it was just a four-year program. The problem is much bigger than that. We need to be thinking longer term,” said Fuentes. While the TransCap funds have helped pay for several high profile bridge projects, Fuentes said, you don’t have to look further than Maine’s borders to see that state’s bridge problems are by no means solved.
Problems on the horizon?
“It’s ironic that we have failing bridges at both ends of our state – in Fort Kent and in Kittery. Maine only has to pay for half of those bridges and we still are having problems coming up with the money,” said Fuentes. New Brunswick and New Hampshire, respectively, have pledged funding for the projects that connect Maine to its closest neighbors. In addition, the federal government has committed $20 million in economic recovery funds to the Memorial Bridge replacement.
“The strategic role these bridges play highlights how critical good roads and bridges are to our economy. If one has to close down because it is not safe, that is a major blow to the state and local economy,” said Fuentes.
The Bangor Daily News recently reported that another bridge spanning the international border – the Franklin D. Memorial Bridge connecting Lubec and Campobello Island – was moving slightly. Officials in both Maine and New Brunswick have said there are no immediate safety concerns. The 879-foot long bridge was built in 1962. That bridge is currently not on the MaineDOT’s “watch list,” but will it be the next major bridge to require significant repairs?
Meanwhile, there are 10 other aging, “extraordinary” bridges – bridges estimated to cost between $12 million and $55 million to replace – waiting for funding. Most have been scheduled for replacement in 2014 or later. In total, replacement costs for Maine’s extraordinary bridges adds up to $254 million.
Fuentes notes that, if previously undetected problems are uncovered, having to step in to replace the Lubec bridge – or any one of Maine’s “big ticket” bridges – will require further sacrifice and uncertainty in communities throughout Maine. That is because, Fuentes said, the state lacks a clear plan to secure long-term bridge funding.
“Surprises happen. Just think back to how many times in recent years there have been close calls, “ said Fuentes, citing the Waldo-Hancock Bridge.
Both Fuentes and Sweeney agree that it will be critical to keep focus on the bridge problem. Even after the TransCap bridge funds have been spent, Maine will continue to face a persistent backlog of deficient bridges. Putting a dollar value on those needs is easy. Sweeney points to the recommendations in the Keeping Bridges Safe report that called for $130 million to $140 million bridge investments per year over a decade.
Fuentes said that if the Maine Legislature doesn’t begin to address this in earnest now, the state risks losing ground. Congress has taken earmarks off the table, and all indications are the new federal surface transportation authorization will send fewer dollars to the states than in years past.
Fuentes said that with these factors in mind, prudent borrowing makes sense. “The longer we put off these investments, the greater the cost, because every time we post or close a bridge, Maine drivers pay even more in increased fuel costs and emergency response times.”
There are major bridge projects still looming. Sweeney noted that Maine soon will be required to come up half of the funding for the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, one of the three major bridges spanning the Piscataqua River between Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The cost of that has been estimated at $110 million.
“Overall, I think we have gained on the problem, but we will need to maintain investment levels to solve it,” said Sweeney. “We’re okay for now, but four, five or six years from now, we could be back where we started.”