FORT KENT, Maine — When Lynne Levesque crossed into the United States from Canada late Thursday morning, she had not intended to become a part of local transportation history.
By pure luck of the draw, Levesque, who lives in Clair, New Brunswick, was the first to drive over the newly opened international bridge connecting the two countries.
“They gave me a choice of being the last one over the old bridge or the first over the new one,” Levesque said just after clearing U.S. Customs. “I decided it would be pretty funny to be the first.”
At about 10:45 a.m., Levesque’s car was the first to clear the Fort Kent port of entry following a 30-minute ceremony officially opening the new international bridge connecting Maine to Clair, New Brunswick.
“It really was not my plan to be the first one across,” Levesque said. “I was just on my way to get gas [but] this is pretty nice.”
During the official ceremony, New Brunswick Premier David Alward said, “We are celebrating the opening of a new bridge which provides a critical link between two countries and two communities.”
“This new infrastructure supports trade, tourism and business in the region while also serving commuters who are visiting friends and relatives on both sides of the border,” he said.
At precisely 10 a.m., various officials and about 200 residents from Canada and the U.S. were escorted by honor guards from their respective sides of the $13.9 million bridge to the center for a ceremonial ribbon cutting.
The cost of the new span was split evenly between Maine and New Brunswick. Completed two months ahead of schedule to accomodate the World Acadian Congress that starts next week, the new structure replaces the 84-year-old steel truss-style bridge located 15 feet upriver.
In 2009, the Maine Department of Transportation determined wear and tear on the old bridge was making it unsafe for the existing traffic flow. Throughout the construction phase beginning in 2011, heavy truck traffic has been limited or detoured entirely for weeks at a time.
“This bridge is an example of the cooperation between [New Brunswick] and Maine,” said David Bernhardt, the Maine DOT commissioner. “You all know the importance of this bridge, you cross it every day.”
Residents of both countries mingled on the bridge for about a half hour after the ceremony before the first cars were allowed to drive through.
Fort Kent native Mitchell Levesque brought his wife Emily and their two children to witness the opening.
“It will be cool for them to say in 30 years, ‘I was here for this,’” Levesque said, nodding to his son Leo, 10, and daughter Beatrice, 7. “People go back and forth a lot and it’s important to keeping [the border] open.”
For Fort Kent Town Manager Don Guimond, the opening marked the end of more than a decade of meetings, plans and negotiations.
“We first sat down to talk about this in 2002,” he said. “This is a significant investment in the infrastructure of this region and this bridge is what unites us [because] we really are one people.”
After the last dozen or so cars lined up on the old bridge had cleared customs on both sides, that structure was closed for good with demolition slated to begin later this year.