DRESDEN, Maine — A rural bridge that for eight decades has been a link across the Kennebec River from central Maine to the coast is in dire need of replacement, but the project depends on the state receiving hotly pursued federal grant funding.
The Maine Kennebec Bridge, which traverses the Kennebec River between Richmond and Dresden, handles up to 3,000 vehicles a day, according to transportation officials. With rusting girders, crumbling concrete supports and overall worn condition, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said the structure is well past the point of repair.
To replace the structure — which is known locally as the Richmond-Dresden Bridge — will cost at least $25 million, a sum of money that Bernhardt said just isn’t available in the state budget during these lean economic times. That’s why Maine is pinning its hopes on $10.8 million in grant funding through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program.
The federal grant, if given to Maine, would be paired with a few million dollars left over from a previous stimulus grant and $10 million or more in state money. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who visited the bridge Friday with numerous transportation and local officials, vowed to use her influence on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in an effort to bring the grant funding to Maine. However, she said competition for the funding is fierce.
“There’s a huge transportation maintenance backlog all over the country,” said Collins. “There are thousands of applications for these funds. I’m hopeful about the chances of this application. This is clearly a critical transportation link in this area of Maine.”
Not only is the bridge heavily used by motorists, but the fact that part of it has the ability to pivot out of the way for traffic in the river makes its health vital to boaters, particularly Coast Guard cutters who annually motor up the river to prevent ice jams.
According to the DOT’s TIGER application, the plan is to replace the more than 1,200-foot-long 1931-era bridge with a much taller bridge that will crest 80 feet above the river’s high-tide mark. In addition to its poor condition, another deficiency of the bridge is that its superstructure is too low for many commercial vehicles, which must drive in the center of the road to avoid angled steel beams at the sides. Evidence of that problem is apparent in dented and twisted beams at either end of the bridge that chronicle numerous collisions by too-tall vehicles over the years.
Though construction plans are not finalized, Bernhardt said the preliminary plan is to construct the new bridge alongside the old one before removing the older bridge. The bridge is classified by the Federal Highway Administration as structurally deficient, with five of its spans rated as “fracture critical,” which means that failure of certain steel beams could result in a collapse. Despite that, Bernhardt said the bridge is safe for vehicles weighing up to 100,000 pounds — for now.
Local officials who were on hand for Collins’ visit on Friday said they and others in the Richmond and Dresden area have some concerns about the project, but still view it as necessary. Richmond Selectman Clarence Cummins said he is concerned about preserving nearby historic sites, including a Native American settlement that dates back thousand of years, and the impact on nearby residents. Cummins said there is concern in the community that at least one house on the Richmond side of the bridge would have to be removed and its occupants displaced.
Bernhardt said that is not certain because the exact alignment of the new bridge has not yet been decided. A meeting for residents and DOT officials to discuss concerns is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Pownalborough Hall in Dresden.
“We’re expecting standing room only at that meeting,” said Dresden Selectman Dave Probert.
If the TIGER grant application is successful — and Collins said the answer will likely come by year’s end — Bernhardt said construction would begin in the spring of 2013 with completion scheduled for sometime in 2015.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of a meeting about the project. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Pownalborough Hall in Dresden, not the Pownalborough Courthouse.