FORT KENT, Maine — State, provincial and local officials believe they have come up with a plan to keep heavy traffic flowing across the 81-year-old international bridge, which was posted last week to restrict traffic to vehicles weighing 3 tons or less.
Inspections by transportation officials from both sides of the border had showed the bridge’s exterior steel stringers and concrete deck no longer could safely support the weight of heavy truck traffic.
With a new bridge a minimum of three years away, assuming the New Brunswick government releases funds, businesses relying on trucks for transportation fear disastrous economic consequences from the posting and detours.
The next closest port of entry between the two countries is 20 miles down the St. John River at the bridge connecting Madawaska and Edmundston, New Brunswick.
“Eighty percent of my wood comes from Maine,” said Pierre Michaud, operations manager at Waska Enterprises, a cedar shingle production mill in Clair. “We may get up to 15 trucks a day, and I am very much concerned with this issue because our suppliers said they will not consider detouring through Edmundston.”
Peter Tabor, regional manager for J.D. Irving Woodlands, said his company is facing $675,000 in extra transportation costs if trucks hauling logs from Maine to mills in Canada are forced to detour through Madawaska.
“The mills can’t absorb that cost,” Tabor said. “Plus we are afraid it will place too much pressure on the border crossings in Madawaska and Edmundston.”
Tabor and Michaud were among the 20 or so local businessmen, municipal leaders and transportation officials from both sides of the border participating in a meeting Wednesday to discuss possible solutions.
Bruce Ibarguen, a traffic engineer with the Maine Department of Transportation, said DOT is sympathetic with the economic hardships created by posting the bridge and is actively seeking short-term solutions until a new bridge can be built.
The easiest solution, said Ibarguen, who has 40 years experience in the field, is to install traffic signals on the bridge to limit all traffic to a single lane down the middle of the bridge and allow only one truck to cross at a time.
However, he added that relying on technology alone could actually compound the problem.
“Because the bridge and customs house on the U.S. side are in such close proximity, there is no way to time the signals to avoid traffic backing up on the bridge,” Ibarguen said.
Heavy trucks idling on the bridge is exactly what transportation officials on both sides of the border want to avoid.
An estimated 40 to 45 large trucks cross daily. If three such trucks tried to cross into the United States at the same time, two could be accommodated at the port of entry, while the third and any vehicles behind it would remain on the bridge. The Canadian side can accommodate up to seven trucks in a line before backed-up traffic extends to the bridge.
Participants at Wednesday’s meeting suggested establishing “staging areas” on both sides of the border where trucks could wait until there was room to proceed one at a time over the bridge and through the respective port of entry.
“My issue is we can’t afford to have pulp trucks queued up on that bridge end to end, [and] if you have 20 to 30 vehicles queued up on Main Street in Fort Kent you will have gridlock,” said John Buxton, DOT bridge maintenance engineer.
Ibarguen agreed, adding that a human element would be required to control the traffic flow.
“I don’t see any other way to run the bridge with one-way traffic without human interaction,” he said.
By using specialized DOT traffic cones equipped with cameras and computerized modems combined with a person stationed near the bridge controlling a set of signal lights, DOT officials from the two countries felt that one-lane truck traffic could be maintained safely until a new bridge is constructed.
That particular fix, Ibarguen said, looks to be the best compromise solution but would be temporary at best.
Repairing the existing structure, Buxton said, could run between $1.5 and $2 million.
“The DOT does not feel that is a prudent way to spend that money,” he said.
Funds are already available for Maine’s share of the estimated $11 million 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.
If municipal officials in Fort Kent could find responsible individuals to act as bridge traffic monitors, Ibarguen said there is a good chance his department could fund those positions.
Under a plan devised during Wednesday’s meeting, the so-called traffic observation booth would be staffed from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays with truck traffic restricted to those times.
“This looks like a good compromise plan,” said Brian McKinney, assistant director of maintenance and traffic for the New Brunswick Department of Transportation. “It would be a temporary solution, but it would keep the bridge open.”
Ibarguen said he was encouraged by Wednesday’s discussions and is confident his agency can help with the temporary fix.
“I’m optimistic we have come up with a workable solution,” he said. “Now the folks in Fort Kent need to come up with the staff to make it happen.”
Ibarguen will head back to Augusta to discuss the plan with his superiors and work to secure funding for the traffic monitors.
Transportation officials will be back for a follow-up meeting to unveil the final truck traffic plan in Fort Kent on Jan. 25.
Also, DOT officials met Tuesday with members of the World Cup Biathlon International Light Parade planning committee and gave their approval of a parade route beginning in Clair, crossing the bridge and ending in Fort Kent.
Hundreds of units with more than 1,800 people are expected to participate in the parade. Officials agreed to space the heavier floats far enough apart to avoid more than one being on the bridge at the same time.