FORT KENT, Maine — No one is saying the international bridge connecting Maine to Clair, New Brunswick, is unsafe, but officials on both sides of the border agree now is the time to begin serious planning for the structure’s replacement.
“The bridge is functionally and structurally obsolete,” said Joel Kittredge, project manager with the Maine Department of Transportation, referring to the span that was built in 1929. “That’s fancy talk for it’s rusty [and] not much fun to drive across.”
Kittredge spoke Tuesday night at a public hearing on the project in Fort Kent that drew close to 60 area residents.
A similar hearing earlier that day in Clair drew about 50 people.
Preliminary plans call for the current 730-foot-long steel truss-style bridge, which supports a narrow, two-lane road, to be replaced with a 754-foot-long concrete bridge nearly 25 feet wider than the existing 20-foot-wide structure.
The new international bridge, expected to carry an $11 million price tag, would be built about 15 feet downriver from the existing bridge, requiring the acquisition and demolition of the Masonic Lodge in Fort Kent.
“We want to keep the new bridge as close to the existing bridge as possible to minimize the impact on the border structures,” Kittredge said. “The farther we get away from those, the more complicated it gets.”
About 1,900 vehicles travel on the bridge over the St. John River daily, according to a DOT study.
“This will be a joint effort between two countries,” Kittredge said. “On international bridges, it alternates between [Maine] DOT and Canada on who takes the lead and who acts as a silent partner.”
Since DOT was the lead agency on the recently completed international bridge connecting Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Kittredge said the St. John River bridge project would be led by the New Brunswick Department of Transportation.
“We are very happy with the way the project is developing,” Tracy MacDonald, New Brunswick DOT project manager, said. “Now we have to review all comments from our side and your side and move ahead with the permitting process.”
Environmental and governmental permits will be needed from the state, provincial and federal levels, MacDonald said.
“Three factors influence the design of the new bridge,” Kittredge said. “The St. John River’s hydrology, international border operations and local issues.”
Given the river’s history of spring flooding and ice jams, Kittredge said, plans call for the new bridge to be close to 3 feet higher at its lowest point than the current structure’s highest point above the river.
Four steel beams would support a concrete deck with three piers in the river.
“It would be a much bigger structure than what you have out there now,” Kittredge said.
The design of the bridge and its intersection with U.S. Route 1 in Fort Kent and Clair’s Main Street would not require any relocation of the current border inspection stations.
The two countries would split the $11 million cost equally, and Kittredge said the DOT has about half of Maine’s share budgeted for the project.
The remaining funds, he said, most likely would come from the $160 million bridge replacement bond approved by voters last year.
On the local level, the only cost Fort Kent could incur is any necessary utility replacements or relocations in connection with the bridge’s construction.
The dollar amount cited by Kittredge is for construction only and does not include necessary property acquisition or demolition and removal of the current bridge.
“For our part, money is not the biggest issue,” Doug Noble of the New Brunswick DOT, said. “When we are ready, our government said the money will be there. For us the biggest challenge is the engineering [and] we want to get the best fit for the Canadian side and the American side.”
If all goes according to plan, Kittredge said, construction on a new bridge could begin in 2012 with completion in the fall of 2013.
Kittredge stressed the current bridge is safe for vehicle traffic, but he added, “sometime the dice will come up snake-eyes and we want to have a new bridge in place before that happens.”
And there is still a great deal of work to do, he said.
“This is what we know now,” Kittredge said. “There is still a lot of engineering left to do with some real hard number crunching.”
Once the engineering plans are complete — a process Kittredge said could take up to a year — another round of public hearings will be scheduled before the project goes out to bid.
“Construction firms from Canada and America are eligible to bid on the project,” MacDonald said.