Fort Kent bridge closed to big trucks, construction delayed indefinitely

Posted Dec. 30, 2010, at 8:22 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 7:05 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Getting goods over the border between Fort Kent and Clair, New Brunswick, is about to get a little tougher — and more expensive for some businesses.

Next week, the Maine Department of Transportation will post a weight limit on the Fort Kent International Bridge spanning the Saint John River.

The weight-limit posting will restrict traffic on the bridge to vehicles that weigh 3 tons or less. The posting will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5.

The posting will allow passenger vehicles and light pickup trucks to use the bridge. All other vehicles weighing more than 3 tons must use an alternative route.

For many that means crossing at the port of entry connecting Edmundston, New Brunswick, and Madawaska, 20 miles northeast of Fort Kent.

According to information released late Thursday by the DOT, an average of 940 vehicles a day use the Fort Kent International Bridge, with approximately 5 percent of those being heavy trucks.

“The posting is due to the age and condition of the bridge,” John Buxton, DOT bridge maintenance engineer, said Thursday afternoon. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on it and we knew this move was coming.”

Engineers and staff with the DOT inspected the bridge on Dec. 14 and determined the 80-year-old structure’s exterior steel stringers and concrete deck no longer could safely support the weight of heavy truck traffic.

That decision, Buxton said, was made after consulting with officials in New Brunswick.

Until last fall, it looked as if the state and provincial governments would seek bids in March 2011 for construction of a new bridge to replace the existing structure.

Funds are already available for Maine’s share of the estimated $11 million cost for a new bridge, but a newly elected New Brunswick provincial government failed to allocate any funds for the project in its capital budget released Dec. 17. The budget included $81 million for bridge and ferry construction and rehabilitation proj-ects provincewide.

“Our department is doing the planning review, so we are ready for construction when we do have the funds,” Sarah Ketcheson, communications director for the New Brunswick Department of Transportation, said Thursday.

With the new construction on indefinite hold and the announced weight restrictions on the existing bridge, municipal and business leaders forecast transportation and economic headaches.

“A lot of people don’t understand, but restrictions on that international bridge [are] like removing the bridge between Brewer and Bangor,” Don Guimond, Fort Kent’s town manager, said Thursday. “There is no other connection between our two communities.”

From an economic standpoint, Guimond said, the impact will be dramatic.

“We are talking about a roughly 80-mile round trip for people having to cross through Madawaska,” the town manager said. “At today’s fuel prices you are looking at real money.”

Hardest hit, Guimond speculates, are businesses trucking cargo related to the lumber and petroleum industries.

In addition, he said, there are questions surrounding the restrictions applying to snow removal and emergency response vehicles.

Fort Kent and Clair share snow removal duties on the bridge and hold a mutual support agreement for fire protection.

Guimond even wondered what the 3-ton posting would mean for a planned international light parade involving the two towns during the World Cup Biathlon competition in February.

Danny Vaillancourt, president of Fort Kent-based Daigle Oil Co., agrees the impact will be huge. The effects also will be felt instantly, he said, because the company imports its petroleum products from Quebec City using independently owned transport trucks.

“We will feel it right away,” Vaillancourt said. “The length of time to travel from Quebec [City] to Fort Kent is going to increase, so the cost of freight is going to go up.”

While his business will see those cost increases as soon as the posting goes into effect, Vaillancourt said he was uncertain at this point when or how much it would affect his customers.

“Our competition doesn’t necessarily have these same issues,” Vaillancourt said. “Right now we don’t know what the numbers will be, [but] there will definitely be an increase in our cost and an inconvenience with lost time.”

Conditions along the international crossing should never have come to this point, Guimond said.

“For me this is shameful,” he said. “This is the only link we have at this point [and] we all know it has to be replaced. And here we are still waiting, so it’s very disappointing DOT allowed it to come to this point.”

For now, the bridge is safe for light vehicle traffic, Buxton said.

He noted that all bridges have a finite life.

“This is an 80-year-old bridge,” Buxton said. “It’s lived its life, and it needs to be pampered to get us through.”

Buxton remains confident that the New Brunswick government will be able to secure funding to allow construction of a new bridge to move forward.

“I don’t think it will ever reach the point it will be closed to all traffic,” Buxton said. “Before that happens everyone will come to the table and we’ll dance together.”

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