The old line that familiarity breeds contempt apparently applies to bridges as well as to people.
The Waldo-Hancock Bridge, across the Penobscot River near its mouth, opened in 1931. It was acclaimed for its engineering and aesthetic qualities; the truss design of the bridge later was used in in several important bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge.
Five years ago when it was replaced with the new-style Penobscot Narrows span, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge still was celebrated; paintings, photographs and refrigerator magnets saluted the old and the new.
Since then, not much has been heard about the old bridge, lying neglected and rusting just adjacent to its successor. Then word came out that bids are being solicited from contractors to demolish the old bridge, using at least $6 million in scarce Maine state funds; a recent published estimate was over $7.5 million. Bits of cable from the old span will be distributed to nearby towns and that will be that.
Two things are wrong with this picture.
First, there has been virtually no information provided to the public about the potential harm of the proposed demolition.
Bids are coming in this week from demolition companies with no known analysis about the impact demolition would have on Penobscot River water quality and fish habitat or on the air quality risks for traffic passing on the new bridge, the adjacent Fort Knox, and the nearby communities of Verona Island, Prospect and Bucksport.
In addition to osprey, a pair of peregrine falcons have nested on the bridge for years. The bird is on the Maine state endangered species list and yet until very recently the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had not even been notified much less given input into the decision.
Before the Waldo-Hancock Bridge is consigned to the wreckers a public information hearing is in order to ensure that the proposed demolition has been well-conceived and coordinated and poses no harm to human and wildlife.
They say that that the demolition companies bidding to destroy the old bridge will be required to landscape and provide a viewing area near the turnout on the Prospect approach to the bridge. Is this enough?
Costing far less than required for demolition, why not preserve the old structure in a way that would be a self-sustaining magnet for the substantial number of tourists that bypass the local area in the rush up Route 1 to Acadia and Bar Harbor?
Instead of spending millions of dollars to destroy the bridge, a range of options should be explored, starting with preservation of the old structure for use as a pedestrian and bike way. The cost of restoring the bridge to that capacity (not vehicular capacity) likely would be relatively modest, but was not estimated.
If the bridge remains, it would be far more than a viewpoint but rather a thrilling platform for observing the natural beauty of the area as well as a venue for local craft and farm producers.
A trail could descend to the shoreline and be used by walkers or kayakers right to the Maine state boat landing on Verona Island facing Bucksport.
All of the above would generate significant spending by visitors attracted by a reopened, reinvented Waldo-Hancock “Bridgeway” in combination with the adjacent new bridge and Fort Knox.
So if the funds slated for demolition instead were used to preserve the span, the impact could be enormous. In Maine an economic development grant of $50,000 is big news.
Preserving Waldo-Hancock has never been examined or proposed, mostly because the state does not wish to retain liability for the bridge. If the issue is put to the public, it could be that a consortium of private sector entities could form to take responsibility if it is renewed to support pedestrians and bicyclists.
Conservation and environmental agencies, along with big and small Maine businesses, could form an entity that would be key here. Companies such as Cianbro could play a major role. Indeed, such companies might be induced to provide material or labor support for maintenance of the old bridge which would be a public relations triumph. Bucksport would benefit especially if the bridge becomes a tourist magnet. Locally active companies such as the keystone Verso paper mill and the area fuel providers and transporters may well get on the bandwagon.
Three steps should be taken before the Maine Department of Transportation makes a decision to put out a demolition contract on the bridge:
1. A public information briefing should be conducted in the vicinity of the bridge with senior representatives of DOT, DIF&W and all other relevant state agencies. Public questions and comments also would be encouraged at this meeting.
2. After such a meeting, Gov. Paul LePage should convene a meeting of corporate and business leaders to look at ways to work with the private sector to form a nongovernmental entity to take responsibility for the span. The state needs to think out of the box about options for the old bridge and the governor especially is known for that kind of leadership.
3. Maine’s private sector then should respond. Leadership could come from one or more distinguished Mainers and relevant civic and nonprofit agencies who see demolition as a last resort, not the first option.
In Washington, D.C., the Willard Hotel and Union Station were narrowly saved from the wrecking ball and are now tourist and business powerhouses. We can do that in Maine as well, where too often we have missed those opportunities.
There is still just enough time to save the iconic Waldo-Hancock Bridge and transform it into a world-class landmark to boost the area for years to come.
Lionel Rosenblatt was a career Foreign Service officer with the State Department and international NGO leader. In 1973-74 he was a Bangor Daily News reporter.