KITTERY – Banners are up, a postcard campaign is under way and an art gallery is featuring an exhibit on what has become the major topic in town: the fate of the two crumbling bridges that link the downtowns of Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H.
With the final recommendations of a two-state study of what to do about the structures due out by the end of the month, backers of the replacement of the bridges are stepping up their efforts to convince Maine officials to keep the spans open. While New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch said he is ready to forge ahead with work on one bridge, Gov. John Baldacci and Maine’s top transportation officials have reserved judgment until the study is complete.
“The governor’s office and Maine DOT have been frustratingly quiet on this issue,” said Stephen Kosacz, a Kittery business owner and member of Save Our Bridges, a citizens group seeking to keep the bridges open.
At issue are the Memorial and Sarah Mildred Long bridges, which, along with the Interstate 95 bridge, are the only entry points to Maine over the Piscataqua River. Both movable bridges that open regularly for boat traffic; the Memorial and Sarah Mildred Long bridges are badly deteriorated.
Just two years ago, it appeared both could be renovated at a cost of more than $160 million. But in the past 18 months, inspections have concluded the Route 1 Memorial Bridge — the only pedestrian bridge of the three — cannot be saved and has one to three years of life left.
It is not yet clear whether the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, which carries traffic on the Route 1 bypass, can be renovated or will require replacement after its expected seven years of remaining usefulness. The price tag to replace both is estimated at $200 million to $300 million.
The bridges are jointly owned by New Hampshire and Maine, which launched the study to try to work out a solution. Everyone appears to agree that both bridges are important to the local economy and the region’s transportation needs.
The two states worked together on an unsuccessful bid to obtain federal economic stimulus funds to cover the costs of the bridge projects. But whether the states can agree that the escalating costs of fixing the problems are worth it has yet to be determined.
New Hampshire has put the bridges at the top of its replacement list. Officials in Maine, which has many more bridges and miles of road than New Hampshire, have not identified the two bridges as priorities.
“We have 386 bridges on our watch list — which generally means if they are not repaired or replaced within the next 10 years, they are in danger of weight restrictions or closure,” said Mark Latti, spokesman for Maine’s Transportation Department.
Last month, Lynch announced his state would pick up the cost of the Memorial Bridge, so work could begin right away, if Maine would agree to offset New Hampshire’s investment when it came time to start work on the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge.
“We need to move forward,” said Jeff Brillhart, assistant New Hampshire transportation commissioner.
New Hampshire legislators have already approved the plan to finance the Memorial Bridge on its own.
Maine officials say the study must be completed before they can respond to the offer.
“We are trying to work through this,” said David Farmer, Baldacci’s spokesman.
So far, the $2 million study group has narrowed the options from about 60 possibilities to five.
These options call for retaining both bridges or permanently closing the Memorial Bridge and replacing it with a pedestrian bridge or a $1.7 million-a-year public transit system that would carry people between the downtowns via the other bridges.
The possible closure of Memorial Bridge is the focus of much of the debate. Bridge backers say closing it would ruin business in downtown Kittery, depress property values in the area and hurt businesses across the river in Portsmouth.
“They should have repaired them long ago,” said Arline Lundin, a 32-year Kittery resident.
Kittery Foreside has undergone an economic rebirth in the past decade. A number of specialty food shops have opened along Route 1, known as “Gourmet Alley,” as have new restaurants and galleries in the Wallingford Square neighborhood, which, along with the landmark Warren’s Lobster House, draws shoppers across Memorial Bridge from New Hampshire.
“It is absolutely in Maine’s interest. I don’t understand why they don’t say, ‘OK, fine,’” said Margaret Palau, owner of Paradise gallery at 64 Wallingford Square.
Kosacz, the Kittery business owner, said if Maine doesn’t fix the bridge, then the $4 million Maine just spent on traffic improvements to Route 1 was pointless.
Baldacci has agreed to support New Hampshire’s attempt to apply for a new round of federal economic stimulus funds for transportation projects. Brillhart, the New Hampshire transportation official, said Baldacci’s support is the signal New Hampshire officials have waited for.
“I am feeling better that, in fact, we are going to find a way to get it done,” said Brillhart.
But Maine officials say it is too soon for New Hampshire to get too excited about what Maine may agree to. Although Baldacci has pledged to visit the Kittery area, a date has yet to be scheduled.
“These are not the only bridges in Maine that face the circumstances,” said Farmer.
Once the final study recommendations are released by the end of this week, representatives from the two states will sit down and decide which option makes the most sense, said Latti.
If the options cost money, it will then be up to the Maine Legislature to approve the use of any state money.
“Someone will have to convince the Legislature to take the appropriate action,” said Farmer.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services