VERONA ISLAND, Maine — The Waldo-Hancock Bridge that carried generations of motorists across the Penobscot River but now rusts in the shadow of its modern replacement finally has a date with the wrecking crew.
Initial work to remove the 81-year-old suspension bridge linking Verona Island and Prospect is expected to begin this summer, more than five years after the Penobscot Narrows Bridge opened to traffic, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
But don’t expect the old span to come down with a big boom and a dramatic splash.
The $7.6 million removal project is expected to take nearly a year, with the bulk of the heavy-duty deconstruction occurring next fall and winter in order to minimize effects on endangered fish and birds that live and breed on or below the bridge.
“The plan we have is a salvage plan,” said Douglas Coombs, assistant project manager with the Maine DOT. “There will be cranes on barges in the water that will remove the superstructure of the bridge.”
State and local officials had hoped to remove the deteriorating bridge not long after the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory opened in late 2006. But securing the necessary authorizations and funding for the massive project took longer than anticipated.
When it opened in 1931, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Penobscot south of Bangor and replaced a ferry system for cars. But the 2,040-foot-long span was deteriorating to the point that, in 2003, state officials announced that the problems were beyond repair and a new bridge was needed.
Nearly a decade later, the old bridge is a rusting skeleton beside the iconic, $85 million Penobscot Narrows Bridge with its two, obelisk-like towers and angular system of cables. And from a tourism standpoint, the Waldo-Hancock bridge is in the line of sight of three popular stops for visitors: Fort Knox State Historic Site, the observatory 420 feet above the river in one of the new bridge’s towers and Bucksport’s downtown waterfront.
“Taking that old bridge down is going to make a big difference,” said Roger Raymond, town manager of Bucksport, which has developed a waterfront walking path overlooking the river and bridges that is popular with both local residents and tourists.
Coombs said the department plans to solicit bids for the project in mid-June with prep work beginning by mid-August or early September.
Work on the bridge itself cannot begin until Oct. 1, however, due to the presence of pairs of peregrine falcons and osprey that have chosen to nest on the old bridge. Peregrine falcons are an endangered species in Maine, so Oct. 1 was set as the start date in order to ensure that any peregrine chicks in the nest had time to develop and leave the nest.
Brad Allen, a bird biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said biologists are still discussing options, including attempting to relocate the nest nearby. Osprey readily accept man-made platform nests, so one will likely be placed along the river in the area, Allen said.
“That gives us a whole nesting season to figure this out,” Allen said of the Oct. 1 start date.
Demolition crews also will have to wait until after Nov. 1 to bring in the barges to work on the bridge’s superstructure in order to avoid harming endangered shortnose sturgeon that move through that stretch of the river during the summer and fall.
Work on the superstructure is expected to continue through April 2013 with a goal of completing landscaping around the site of the former bridge by June 2013.
The old bridge footings, or piers, will not be removed, however, so the state is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to design navigational lights to alert boaters to the piers, which are located 700 feet apart.
The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands also is developing plans to use the riverfront area now occupied by the old bridge.
Mike Leighton, regional manager for the bureau, said staff members hope to build new trails to and from Fort Knox, picnic areas and potentially a group shelter located on top of one of the large, concrete blocks that is part of the suspension bridge’s counterbalance system.
The federal government is paying 80 percent of the estimated $7.6 million bridge removal costs with the state chipping in the remaining 20 percent, Coombs said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the age of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge as 86 years old. It is 81 years old.