VERONA ISLAND, Maine — In nine years, Charlie Bickford never had been late for work. The 60-year-old Belfast resident has been the host of the Woodstock Nation Radio show at WERU, the community radio station that’s based in Orland, he said on Monday.
“I’m a real Mainer,” he said. “I have good winter tires and four-wheel drive.”
But as a result of an ice storm last week and the subsequent closure of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge on Sunday and into Monday, he missed all of one of his noon shows and more than half of another.
Around 11:20 a.m. Sunday, Bickford approached the bridge in his car and saw emergency vehicles. When he asked an official what was going on, the man pointed up.
“I looked up and a great big chunk of ice just fell and burst like a bomb on the roadway,” he said.
As a result, Bickford had to drive to Bangor and then back down through Orrington to get to the station in Orland, turning his regularly 35-minute commute into an hour-and-45-minute drive.
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge was closed on Sunday morning because, as temperatures rose, ice that had been stuck to the cables of the bridge from the recent storm began to melt and fall off onto the roadway. The closest alternate route to cross the Penobscot River is 20 miles away in Bangor, adding 40 miles to some motorists’ commute.
At least four cars reportedly were damaged by falling chunks of ice, though no one was injured. A Ford SUV was listed as a total loss with damage to the roof, hood, windshield and rear window, according to a prepared statement from Hancock County Sheriff’s Office officials.
Maine Department of Transportation press secretary Ted Talbot said a crane would arrive at the bridge around 5 p.m. Monday to attempt to knock ice off the cables. Just before 4 p.m. Monday, MDOT officials still were unsure when the bridge would reopen, but if the use of the crane is effective, they hope to open the bridge in time for Tuesday morning commuters.
“We continue to consult with industry experts from the public and private sector,” Talbot said. He added that they are speaking with experts who handle bridges in other locations, including Boston, the location of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge.
Like the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, the Zakim bridge is a cable-stayed bridge, meaning the deck of the bridge, where the road rests, is held up by cables which are attached directly to the towers of the bridge. In 2005, when the Penobscot Narrows Bridge was under construction, the Zakim bridge had to be closed for two hours because ice was falling off the cables into the roadway, according to news reports from the time. At least one car was damaged.
“The difference in the Zakim Bridge is that the stays that go to the main span go to the outside edge of the bridge,” project manager Tom Doe told the Bangor Daily News in March 2005. “So the stays have to cross over the traffic as they go from the pylon in the middle to the edge of the bridge.”
With that design, he said at the time, any ice that builds up and drops from the stays can drop onto a car.
On the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, the cables run from central towers to anchors located in a median strip along the center of the bridge’s deck.
“If ice should build up there — as I suppose it probably will — it would drop directly down and onto the median … in the middle of the bridge,” Doe said at the time.
That was not the case on Sunday, when car-sized pieces of ice fell onto the roadway, according to those present.
“It’s such a unique event that trying to design a bridge so ice won’t fall off it isn’t necessarily something that one could engineer,” said Talbot.
“You don’t build bridges in anticipation of ice storms,” he said. “You build bridges in anticipation of the weight of the ice. The best you can do with Mother Nature is react as best you can.”
Bill Davids, a University of Maine engineering professor, echoed that sentiment.
“I wouldn’t fault the engineers on this one,” said Davids. “This is a little out of the ordinary.”
“That’s helpful, but we also have the piers,” said Talbot, referring to the tops of the towers on the bridge. “There’s many places on the bridge other than the cables.”
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge carries Route 1 traffic from Verona Island to Prospect. Construction on the bridge began in 2004 after an inspection of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, which originally carried Route 1 across the Penobscot River, revealed that the cables on the bridge were significantly deteriorating and that some cable strands were broken.
The MDOT immediately prohibited load-bearing trucks from crossing the bridge. Construction of the new bridge was completed in 2006.
For updates on the Penoscot Narrows Bridge, visit maine.gov/mdot.