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Obama references crumbling Westbrook bridge in speech

Susan Walsh | AP
Susan Walsh | AP
President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011.
By William Davis, BDN Staff

WASHINGTON, D.C. — During remarks urging Congress to pass his jobs bill, President Barack Obama made reference to the Cumberland Street bridge in Westbrook, which he says is in such bad shape it is crumbling.

The bridge was closed for more than 24 hours this week after a worker found what Westbrook Police Chief Michael Pardue described as a sinkhole.

“Some of you were with me when we visited a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky that’s been classified as functionally obsolete,” Obama said. “That’s a fancy way of saying it’s old and breaking down. We’ve heard about bridges in both states that are falling apart, and that’s true all across the country.”

“In Maine, there is a bridge that is in such bad shape that pieces of it were literally falling off the other day,” Obama continued. “And meanwhile we’ve got millions of laid-off construction workers who could right now be busy rebuilding roads, rebuilding bridges, rebuilding schools.”

Willy Ritch, spokesman for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told the Bangor Daily News he called the White House after the speech to find out which bridge the president was referring to but that he didn’t know how Obama learned about the bridge.

Nor did Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, who said the reference caught him by surprise. Latti said the Westbrook bridge is not literally falling apart as indicated by the president.

Maine’s moderate Republican senators often provide crucial votes as legislation makes its way through the Senate and are therefore often heavily courted by the president for their support. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins both provided statements Thursday indicating partial support for the president’s jobs bill, with some caveats.

“While portions of the president’s plan have merit, such as providing tax incentives to encourage the hiring of our veterans, I am concerned about the cost and effectiveness of the overall plan,” Collins said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News.

A spokesperson for Collins said she had not been contacted by Obama regarding the bill.

“Extending the payroll tax cut, providing incentives for employers to hire military veterans, and using existing Highway Trust funds for expedited road and bridge projects are all good proposals that will help foster job creation,” Snowe said in a separate statement. “However, I will strongly oppose any effort to pay for the president’s initiatives by raising taxes on the job-creating small business owners that serve as the backbone of our economy.”

Other bridges in Maine have experienced problems. It has been reported, though never confirmed, that a breakaway chunk of the Memorial Bridge, which connects Maine and New Hampshire, nearly hit a boater. That bridge since has been closed.

In her release, Pingree said the jobs bill would help fix bridges such as the one in Westbrook.

“Maine would stand to get a minimum of $138 million to fix roads and bridges, and this bridge in Westbrook is just one of the examples of our crumbling highway system,” she said in the release.

The release stated that a worker found a 2-foot-by-3-foot hole in the bridge decking.

The bridge reopened around 6 a.m. Thursday after the Department of Transportation determined the bridge was repaired and safe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mark Latti said the Memorial Bridge was falling apart. The falling debris was never confirmed by officials.

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