SOUTH BRISTOL, Maine — Residents of South Bristol say they hope the Maine Department of Transportation listened when they said last year that the new bridge proposed to replace the deteriorating swinging bridge in the center of town was just too large and inappropriate for the “pretty little town.”
So inappropriate, in fact, that a group opposed to the design — largely from Christmas Cove on Rutherford Island, where most of South Bristol’s summer residents own property — hired Boston bridge architect Miguel Rosales of Rosales + Partners to create what they said was a smaller, more palatable design.
On Thursday, residents of the tiny coastal town (population 892) will find out at a public meeting how much they — and Rosales — were heard when MDOT officials unveil their latest design that Joyce Taylor, director of project development at MDOT, said incorporates elements of the Rosales + Partners bridge.
The current bridge, a “bobtail swing bridge,” was built in the 1930s, and is the only route across the 28-foot gut onto Rutherford Island, which makes up a large part of South Bristol.
The bridge is reputedly one of the most frequently operated bridges in the country because it’s so close to the water — only three feet from the mean high water mark, according to the MDOT, and so must be raised and lowered each time any boat, or even a kayak, wants to pass.
“It’s a very busy bridge,” Chester Rice, chairman of the South Bristol Board of Selectmen, said Monday. “Probably 30-40 lobster boats use that two to three times a day. It’s the only way to get [across the gut by boat] except a long ride down around the islands and back up the bay.”
An MDOT inspection revealed that the bridge mechanics — which get “inundated at high tides,” were severely deteriorated, and after several years of discussion among town and state officials, in June 2012 the MDOT presented plans for a European/Dutch-style heel trunnion bascule bridge that officials said met goals of reliability and low maintenance, and would minimize the effect of construction. The Board of Selectmen approved that design the following month — primarily, according to Rice, because board members realized that “the most important thing was for us to get a new bridge.”
“None of us are arguing that we need a bridge, and we need a bridge, or even a bascule bridge, that’s fine, but we are disturbed that … this one does not fit the community,” Beth Fisher, owner of Island Grocery, said that day, according to official meeting minutes.
Ruth Johnson told the MDOT that the bridge was “much too big,” and “so out of proportion for a little tiny town that is so sweet.”
“The first design was pretty big,” Rice said Monday. “The counterweights were up on big arms, and they really did block the buildings that are there.”
So Rosales — who designed the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston — designed a modified bascule bridge that residents involved in the group Build the Right Bridge said was more fitting with their vision of the town. The design was substantially smaller, and with a lower profile, than the MDOT design.
In January of this year, Rosales told MDOT officials the his bridge meets or exceeds state requirements for a moveable bridge, could be built and maintained at the same or lower cost than the MDOT design, and would halve the length of time the gut would be closed for construction.
In addition, Rosales said his bridge design was safer and, with more room between the water and the bridge deck, would require fewer openings and closings.
The MDOT then realized, according to Taylor, that although officials had interpreted the silence of “many” South Bristol residents as acceptance of the bridge, “when push came to shove, a lot of folks didn’t like how bulky the other bridge was.”
To make it functional, state officials had to adapt what Taylor said was a “concept” designed by Rosales.
“He had the visual aesthetic look that everybody liked, but we had to do the engineering to make it work,” she said. “We ended up taking the concepts and tried to make them real.”
Taylor said there are many constraints and requirements when designing this particular bridge including that it open and close more reliably.
“It’s a very tight spot, near all those houses on the water, so trying to find a way to build something that’s not invasive and doesn’t cause issues for the homes [is difficult],” she said Monday. “It’s also a tight construction spot.”
The MDOT threw out its initial plans and designed a new bridge, incorporating Rosales’ concepts. Rosales “basically comments on our design for aesthetics,” Taylor said.
Taylor did not respond Monday or Tuesday to requests for the cost of additional design work, or the anticipated cost of the newly designed bridge.
She said officials hope the new bridge can be built off site and “floated in” with less disturbance to the village. She also said the MDOT “has taken a good hard look” at extensive roadwork also objected to by many residents, and “we’re looking to really probably not do some of that work, or really bring it in … if they really don’t want that work, maybe we only do what’s associated with the bridge.”
Several residents involved with hiring Rosales + Partners were reluctant to speak on the record Monday about the “contentious” bridge issue, and the related roadwork many deem unnecessary, until after Thursday’s meeting.
Fisher, the island grocery store owner, acknowledged that she was among those who hired the Boston firm, but would only say, “We’re absolutely hopeful that this bridge is going to pass muster and be a lovely addition to the community. We’re thankful to the MDOT for changing their bridge.”
Chester Rice has seen the new design, which he said is “quite a bit smaller.” He said it appears the lift arms are “quite small” and that the bridge counterweights might go into the ground.
But residents will get their first look on Thursday night.
Asked whether he thinks the new design will satisfy those who commissioned the alternate design by Morales, Rice said, “I hope so.”