CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — The University of Maine-developed Bridge-in-a-Backpack could have been a quick, easy replacement for two bridges that washed out in the Sugarloaf area after Tropical Storm Irene struck — if only the geometry had worked.
The Maine Department of Transportation passed on the technology because it wasn’t the best style of bridge for the landscape near the Carrabassett River and Brackett Brook, bodies of water that flooded during the Aug. 28 storm, sweeping away a 39-foot and 24-foot bridge, respectively, according to DOT spokesman Mark Latti.
Without a means of crossing the river and brook, commuters on Route 27 were forced to take a detour that added about 34 miles to the trip, according to Latti.
Temporary replacement bridges were completed Tuesday, reopening the road. Now, the DOT is working out what it will do for a long-term solution.
But what about a Maine-made answer, the Bridge-in-a-Backpack?
After nearly a decade of research and development at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, the Bridge-in-a-Backpack has received worldwide attention and has a global customer base.
Bridges have been built or are in planning and construction stages in Russia, Africa, the Caribbean and Middle East, according to Brit Svoboda, president and CEO of Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, the Orono-based company that sells and creates the bridges to specification.
AIT Bridge-in-a-Backpack projects also can be found throughout the Northeast.
But when it came to finding a replacement for the Carrabassett Valley bridges, the DOT passed on the technology in favor of more traditional beam-style bridges.
The DOT doesn’t hold anything against the Bridge-in-a-Backpack technology. In fact, it has “a lot of confidence” in them, Latti said.
“Buried-arch bridges [such as the Bridge-in-a-Backpack] are generally used where there’s a small stream, where there’s not a large waterflow and no history of either debris or flooding,” Latti said.
“We’re looking for something that’s more of a beam-type structure as opposed to an arch-type structure,” Latti said. Beam bridges allow for more water to flow through and around the bridge and can prevent debris from getting caught underneath and causing a blockage to the stream.
“We want to get these permanent bridges built before the end of November,” Latti said, adding that the DOT was in talks with several potential contractors.
Getting the job done quickly is very important, he said. The washed-out bridges were to the north and south of Sugarloaf Access Road, isolating the popular ski resort and regional economic powerhouse.
The Bridge-in-a-Backpack could have provided that speed, according to Svoboda. Depending on the bridge, construction can be completed in as few as two weeks. AIT says the composite bridges easily can last more than 100 years.
And where traditional bridges need to have beams cast and shipped from a steel plant, the composite arches for Bridge-in-a-Backpack can be cut to length and shipped to the site within 30 days, according to Svoboda.
Svoboda said it was unfortunate that the Bridge-in-a-Backpack didn’t meet the needs for the Carrabassett Valley projects, but that the company is researching new styles of bridges, with AEWC’s help, that might work better for varying landscapes.
Meanwhile, Svoboda said AIT is offering its help and “rapid deployment services” to areas in Vermont, Virginia, New York and other states that were hit hard by Irene.
DOT has used Bridge-in-a-Backpack in other communities throughout Maine, including Pittsfield, Auburn, Belfast, Bradley, North Anson, Hermon and Caribou.