FORT KENT, Maine — Workers with the Maine Department of Transportation were finishing up the installation of 11 signal lights Thursday afternoon that will control the flow of heavy truck traffic over the international bridge connecting Maine to Clair, New Brunswick.
After inspections by New Brunswick and Maine transportation engineers earlier this year, the 81-year-old bridge was posted to restrict traffic to vehicles weighing less than 3 tons.
Last week the departments eased those restrictions and increased the weight limit to 4 tons in anticipation of resuming all heavy traffic on a tightly controlled basis using a combination of cameras and signal lights.
In the meantime, the 40 to 45 trucks using the bridge daily have been forced to detour to the next closest port of entry, connecting Madawaska to Edmundston, New Brunswick, about 15 miles away.
“The work has been going really well,” Wayne Arsenault, DOT traffic supervisor, said Thursday afternoon. “We should be ready to turn it on tonight.”
Under the new system, only one heavy truck at a time will be allowed on the bridge every 10 minutes. That truck must drive directly down the middle of the bridge.
As a big rig is crossing the bridge, Arsenault said, traffic becomes one-way with cars and pickups allowed to follow it to the other side.
Starting Friday, trucks entering Canada from Fort Kent first will proceed to a staging area on Pearl Street in front of the town office.
“A camera will detect a truck once it arrives at that staging area and trigger the signal lights to begin to cycle,” Arsenault said. “It will give the truck a green light to proceed onto Main Street and another green light signals the left turn onto the bridge.”
All traffic traveling east or west on Main Street near the international bridge will be stopped at red lights until the truck enters the bridge. Then the Main Street lights again turn green and traffic can continue.
The cycle will not repeat itself for another 10 minutes, Arsenault said, and alternates between the two countries. If there are no trucks waiting at the Pearl Street location or at the Canadian staging area, the cycle is in standby mode, and two-lane light traffic may continue on the bridge.
The cycle may switch to a five-minute rotation after midnight to early morning to better accommodate the often heavier nighttime truck traffic, Arsenault said.
Should workers at either border crossing notice a traffic bottleneck on the bridge or at the entrances to the bridge, Arsenault said, the system could be manually overridden and controlled by workers at the U.S. port of entry until the traffic flow resumes.
The fix is meant to be temporary until a new bridge is constructed 15 feet down the St. John River to replace the deteriorating steel and concrete structure.
Last week the New Brunswick government announced it will commit to funding its share of the $11 million project and plans to seek construction bids this spring. Funds are already available for Maine’s share of the cost.
Once construction begins, it will take about two years to complete the new bridge.