State plans to take down historic Topsham-Brunswick bridge unless locals come up with $1 million for repairs

Posted May 30, 2013, at 4:36 p.m.

TOPSHAM, Maine — Maine Department of Transportation officials said they are planning to remove the closed Black Bridge unless the two communities it connects decide to invest in its repair or replacement.

Wayne Frankhauser, an assistant manager for the department, said the span is unique and that he has “never seen anything quite like it” in the state.

From records he’s seen, it was built in 1909 or 1910.

The bridge spans the Androscoggin River from Bridge Street in Topsham to Mill Street, Route 1, in Brunswick.

Although residents from Topsham and Brunswick were invited to the meeting Wednesday, only four hands in a full room went up indicating they were Brunswick residents. Maine Department of Transportation members showed a room packed largely with Topsham Heights residents a slide show featuring the bridge’s rusted, deteriorated components.

“We typically look at, for a new highway bridge, 75 years,” Frankhauser said. “If it’s getting 80, 85 years, it’s done extremely well. At 104 plus years, it’s served well.”

The 318-foot bridge is suspended under a railroad bridge and was built with a three-ton capacity.

The bridge was closed in 2011 after a collision damaged the rail, prompting the state to do a more thorough inspection. The state determined deterioration of the bridge as a whole made it no longer safe to carry traffic.

Whether they replace the bridge “in kind” piece-by-piece — or put in a completely separate bridge that would not depend on the railroad bridge for support — transportation officials said Wednesday it would cost an estimated $1 million.

Replacing the bridge with newer material and increasing it to a 15-ton capacity would cost $1 to $1.2 million. A second option to replace the bridge with a new two-span galvanized, self-supporting truss would cost an estimated $900,000 to $1 million.

There were nine accidents reported from 2009 to 2011. Many occurred on Route 1 on the Brunswick side involving people turning onto or from the Black Bridge, and “a whole bunch of accidents where people happened to slip off the running boards in winter conditions on [the bridge] and basically got their cars wedged between the rails,” Frankhauser said.

When Bridge Street resident A.J. Ballard asked if there was another option beyond repairing it, Maine Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note said removal of the bridge is scheduled in the department’s work plan for sometime in the next three years.

Asked if the historic, one-of-a-kind bridge could be turned into a destination point just for foot traffic, Van Note said that would still require a $1 million investment, whether for vehicle or pedestrian use.

Van Note, a Topsham resident who said he’s used the bridge occasionally, has heard conflicting opinions about closure of the bridge since 2011.

The state maintains 8,500 miles of roads and 2,700 bridges, and should be maintaining 75 bridges a year. If everything goes well, the Maine Department of Transportation will get about $60 million yearly in the next three years, and will be able to maintain about 40 bridges.

“In this context, honestly, from the traffic safety point of view and a statewide bridge need point of view, the best thing for a statewide transportation system is to remove this bridge,” Van Note said. “That’s our current tentative plan.”

“It’s never an easy conversation,” Van Note said. After keeping the bridge closed two years, “we need to do something … The way it’s blocked off now, it’s really contained but … it’s an attractive nuisance. It’s something to do, it’s away from the cops, it’s not a good thing.”

Opinions from residents were mixed.

Many raised their hands when asked if closure of the bridge has benefited Topsham Heights residents. Some, such as those on Maple Street, said it directs more traffic onto their streets.

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