The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge opened Friday afternoon to a line of vehicles waiting to cross. It replaces an old one connecting Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery, Maine, along the Route 1 Bypass over the Piscataqua River. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

Kittery’s Anita Bunting was born in 1940, the year the original Sarah Mildred Long Bridge opened.

On Friday, as the new span was set to finally open at 3 p.m., after seven months of delays and a year and a half after the the original bridge was closed permanently, Bunting and her husband, Russ, a Vietnam veteran, were lined up in their Ford pickup truck. They were the first members of the public to drive from the New Hampshire side across the new Sarah Long Bridge, which again connects Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery on the Route 1 Bypass.

“We’re so happy today,” Anita Bunting said as she excitedly waited for construction workers and state police to remove the barriers on the bypass leading to the bridge’s approach. “I’ve always considered this my bridge.”

The Buntings were among dozens of motorists and at least one bicyclist among the first group to cross the new bridge after Maine Department of Transportation officials opened the $163 million span.

The delays in the opening have been the subject of much dispute between MDOT and general contractor Cianbro Corporation.

Prior the bridge opening, local media on Friday morning took part in a tour of the bridge’s control tower and span. During the tour, Maine DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said department officials would not discuss the reasons the bridge did not open sooner.

“We’re not going to be addressing anything to do with the delay today,” Talbot said. “Issues remaining between Cianbro and ourselves; there’s nothing we’re going to do in the press before the process begins. Keeping in mind this bridge is going to be lasting 100 years, so the six, seven month delay; it’s really important to keep that in context.”

Cianbro’s contract allows for DOT to levy $1,000 per-day penalties for every day the bridge remains closed to vehicles beyond the original opening day and for additional per-day penalties if the entire project is not complete beyond June 1, which entails installing railroad tracks on the Maine side of the bridge and landscaping on both sides of the span.

MDOT project manager Jeff Folsom said the department and the contractor would follow the process for remedying delays and assigning responsibility as stipulated in the contract. According to Folsom, MDOT and Cianbro have yet to come up with a plan for lane closures to finish remaining roadway work, such as pointing and patching concrete surfaces on the towers. A lift schedule for marine traffic is not yet in place.

Folsom said he was confident all work would be completed by June 1.

“There’ll come a time when the project was done and we’ll examine that all; it’s not any one thing. To be fair to all the parties, the only thing I can tell you is when the job is done we’ll go through a process and we’ll be fair and we’ll do the right thing,” he said Friday. “One of the advantages of opening the bridge today and doing that work with lane closures is hopefully better weather. It will probably be a few weeks before you start to see any sort of lane closures or traffic disruptions, so we have a little bit of time to work that out.”

Dennis Shanahan is a former Portsmouth Naval Shipyard worker and a self-described “bridge geek” and he wanted to be among the first motorists to finally cross the bridge.

“This is a great place to be right now if you’re into bridge construction, it’s a tremendous bridge and a tremendous design,” said Shanahan, a Dover resident. “It’s a too bad the project is turning contentious at the end, but we’ve come a long way and when people are used to driving over it again, I think they’re going to be very happy with the new bridge.”

The original bridge opened in 1940 and was taken out of service permanently in August 2016. Friday’s opening will again give drivers three choices on bridges to cross between Portsmouth and Kittery, the others being the Memorial Bridge on Route 1 and the high-level Piscataqua River Bridge on Interstate 95. Folsom said constructing the bridge posed many challenges due to the river’s current and the convergence of different forms of transportation in the long bridge’s immediate vicinity.

“There’s a very swift current here, there are a lot of constraints on both sides of the river in terms of roadway alignments and the railway we have to think about,” Folsom said. “The multitude of the different travel modes you’ve got (river) navigation, vehicular traffic, the railroad; all those constraints and trying to balance each one is a real challenge here.”

In late February, Seacoast Media Group filed a Freedom of Access Act request to MDOT to discover more about the causes of the bridge’s extended delay. Some of the documents dating back to last summer indicate there were significant disagreements between MDOT and contractor Cianbro Corporation over items like extra work required to complete components on the bridge. Cianbro contended in July 2017 that MDOT failed to deliver a complete design on time and estimated the bridge would not be completed until April 5, 2018. MDOT has claimed that was a rejected construction schedule despite April 5 closely aligning with Friday’s opening.

Officials are assuring the new bridge is safe, though concerns have been raised by the public since MDOT announced in February that the new bridge’s center span was experiencing a “wavy rope” condition after the bridge was commissioned. Folsom has previously stated the condition will likely expedite the need to replace wire cables that lift the center span, potentially within a few years, much earlier than the expected 25-year life span. He said MDOT has ordered a full set of extra cables at a cost of roughly $250,000, plus the cost of labor, to have ready when a replacement is required.

Michael Hawkins, a principal with the ropes manufacturer Hardesty and Hanover, wrote a letter to MDOT chief engineer Joyce Taylor on March 2 certifying the wavy ropes did not affect safe operation of the bridge and he said he believed “contractor installation operations” were at least a partial cause of the wavy rope condition but also stated a “major factor” was the size of the drums’ grooves the rope passes through.

On Friday Hawkins said the condition affecting the 1¼ inch-diameter steel ropes was not initially noticed because the bridge was in the middle position.

“It’s a marrying of the rope with the groove, so in the future if the rope is replaced it’ll be given the dimensions of groove,” Hawkins said. “It’s not the full length of the rope that is wavy. When the bridge is all the way up; the counterweights are all the way down, you would see that condition on some of the ropes on the side. If you put a straight edge on the rope, between the edges of the rope, it’s a little more than 1¼ inches at all times for a portion of the rope.”

Folsom said the wavy rope condition was still under investigation, but he believed the size of the grooves were a likely cause.

“That’s the best estimation we have now,” Folsom said. “We’re still working through it.”

As of March 9, Talbot said Cianbro has been paid $160,542,068 out of an original contract value of $162,900,450, which includes Cianbro’s construction contingency allowance of $4,400,450 to build the Route 1 Bypass bridge. Talbot has previously said the current contract stands at $163,705,246, approximately $800,000 above the total budgeted amount, but well under 3 percent overages he said MDOT typically sees in large-scale construction projects.

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