KITTERY, Maine — Two months after a rusted chunk of metal plummeted from the 87-year-old Memorial Bridge spanning the border of Maine and New Hampshire, governors of the two states Tuesday set into motion an effort to find money to upgrade it and another aging bridge over the Piscataqua River.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci and New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch signed executive orders that create a task force to come up with as much as $300 million Baldacci says is needed over the next several years to upgrade the bridges, which accommodate a critical commercial and social link between the two states.
New Hampshire long has insisted on replacing the bridges, but Maine kept open an option of removing Memorial Bridge. For the first time, Baldacci on Tuesday gave his support for replacing the Memorial span, even though a study that will advance several options for the bridges has not yet been completed.
“It’s clear to me that we must replace the Memorial Bridge,” said Baldacci. “I know that the study needs to be completed and public comments considered, but I recognize how important the Memorial Bridge is to Kittery and Portsmouth. The replacement of the bridge has to be part of any plan that I would support.”
Both governors’ executive orders recognize the need to replace the Memorial Bridge and to replace or significantly rehabilitate the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge. Both also recognize the need to maintain the much newer Piscataqua Bridge, which has been carrying Interstate 95 traffic since 1972.
The task force, which includes transportation officials and business representatives from both states, is to issue a report by Dec. 15.
Few dispute the importance of the bridges.
Memorial Bridge, built in 1923, links the business and social centers of Kittery and Portsmouth in addition to being the only pedestrian and bicycle crossing of the river. The Sarah Long Bridge, built in 1940, includes a rail line serving Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which employs 4,200 people, as well as heavy truck traffic using commercial service stations in the area. It also serves as a back-up route in the event of a closure or detour from the I-95 bridge.
In his order, Baldacci says the bridges “are essential to the movement of people and goods between and through the two states.” They are also the primary travel route between population centers in states to the south and Canada, it says.
The need to address the deterioration of the bridges was highlighted in late July when the captain of a tour boat in the Piscataqua River said a piece of Memorial Bridge plunged into the river. The captain, Bob Hassold, said the chunk, which was 4 feet in diameter, almost hit his boat, which was carrying four people.
The bridges’ condition spawned an activist group, Save Our Bridges, and has become an issue in Maine’s five-way governor’s race. Baldacci, a Democrat, could not seek re-election because of term limits.
Maine officials have been awaiting the completion of a study that will recommend options for replacing or maintaining the Memorial and Long bridges. After some delays, the report is now due out in November.
Maine and New Hampshire worked together on an unsuccessful bid to obtain federal economic stimulus funds to cover the costs of the bridge projects. The new task force will enable the states to identify joint funding mechanisms and propose legislation in each state that may be necessary to secure funding.