FORT KENT, Maine — Efforts to replace the 81-year-old international bridge connecting Fort Kent to Clair, New Brunswick, moved into the fast lane Friday with word the provincial government is committing to funding for the project.
“This bridge is a vital link for local residents, and for industrial users in New Brunswick who rely on it to transport goods into the U.S.,” Claude Williams, New Brunswick transportation and infrastructure minister, said Friday in a prepared statement. “Its replacement is a priority for our government, and we plan to start con-struction this year.”
Officials from both countries declared the current steel and concrete structure functionally and structurally obsolete in 2009, and unveiled plans for an $11 million replacement bridge to be located 15 feet downriver from the current bridge.
While Maine had committed its share of the anticipated construction costs, a newly elected New Brunswick provincial conservative legislature late last year failed to allocate any funds for the project in its capital budget released Dec. 17, 2010.
In early January, Maine and New Brunswick transportation department engineers declared the current bridge unsafe for heavy truck traffic and posted a weight restriction barring vehicles weighing 3 tons or more.
Vehicles in excess of 3 tons were forced to detour to the nearest port of entry connecting Madawaska to Edmundston, New Brunswick, a 40-mile round trip.
About 1,900 vehicles a day travel over the bridge, including 45 heavy trucks, according to Maine Department of Transportation statistics.
Last week, the two agencies unveiled a compromise plan, which opened the bridge back up to heavy truck traffic.
Using computerized signal lights on both ends, one truck at a time will be allowed to cross the bridge in 10-minute intervals using the center of the two-lane structure.
At the same time, the transportation departments re-posted the bridge, easing the weight restriction to 4 tons.
The details of this plan, which include using Pearl Street as the temporary staging area for trucks waiting to cross the bridge from Fort Kent into Canada, will be discussed at an informational meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1, at the Fort Kent Town Office.
As part of the plan, the section of Pearl Street from Belone Crossing to the town office will be restricted to one-way traffic.
“We are going to present the new protocols as it relates to crossing on the bridge,” Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager, said Thursday afternoon. “This is a final plan, which is not to say little pieces might change as that plan moves forward.”
Guimond could not be reached for further comment Friday.
According to Sarah Ketcheson, director of communications with the New Brunswick Department of Transportation, careful review of the bridge situation led to the release of funds.
“The new government is committed to looking at the issue, observed what was going on and said, ‘We have to do something,’” Ketcheson said Friday afternoon. “They have only been in power three months and they needed to assess what is involved.”
While the New Brunswick government has not released the final dollar figure they plan to contribute, Ketcheson said, the commitment is there to get the job done.
“Since the restriction in early January, our two governments have been working closely to ensure traffic can flow once again,” said Williams. “We have also consulted extensively with municipal officials and the business community to ensure that we take their needs into consideration.”
Mark Latti, spokesman with the Maine Department of Transportation, applauded the announcement.
“We are excited we can move forward with building the new bridge,” Latti said Friday afternoon. “It is a critical link between two communities and a vital connection for businesses and the people of the St. John Valley.”
Sen. John Martin, whose district includes the bridge, on Friday said he hoped to see a new bridge in place by 2013.
“The bids will go out in April,” Martin said. “By June they could be breaking ground and we’ll see some movement on the project.”
This will include the demolition of the Masonic Lodge Hall adjacent to the bridge in Fort Kent, an area that then could be used for staging truck traffic, according to one Town Council member.
Like Latti, Martin said the bridge is crucial to the economic well-being of the St. John Valley.
“It’s critical for us in terms of commerce,” Martin said. “The impacts of the closed bridge to truckers was massive.”
New Brunswick’s announcement came as a relief to Fort Kent Town Council member Priscilla Staples.
“I’m delighted,” Staples said Friday afternoon. “If [New Brunswick] has the money they need to start putting out the contracts, this is super.”
At the same time, Staples said Pearl Street residents have expressed concern about the concentration of diesel fumes that could collect outside their homes from idling trucks.
“Once they get that Masonic building down, they will have a primary staging area for the trucks,” Staples said. “That will come as an extreme relief for those people on Pearl Street.”