MADAWASKA, Maine — Building Maine’s longest international bridge through one of the state’s iciest rivers would have been a complicated project in any year.
But 70-person Zoom calls, fluctuating COVID-19 safety restrictions and a closed border are just a few of the hurdles that make constructing a bridge between the United States and Canada a logistical obstacle course during the pandemic.
The new bridge will connect Madawaska and Edmundston, New Brunswick — a multi-year, $97 million collaboration between the Maine Department of Transportation and the New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. This bridge will replace an existing one, which has fallen into disrepair and has had a 5-ton weight limit on it since 2017.
Even as the primary contractor, Woolwich construction company Reed & Reed Inc., builds its cranes at the shoulder of the St. John River, questions remain particularly about border access for those workers who will need it.
Over the coming years, Reed & Reed and subcontractor Greenfield Construction of New Brunswick will build toward each other, spanning the gap over the river in two directions from Edmundston’s existing bridge abutment to a new Madawaska abutment more than 1,400 feet upstream.
Even though each country has its part to build, some employees will need to travel back and forth across the border.
“The issue that we had in regard to the COVID concerns is that the status of each nation or each province or state’s response was always changing,” Andrew Lathe, MaineDOT project manager, said. “When it came to specifics for the contractor, because things are so fluid, we couldn’t set hard definitions.”
Right now, standing New Brunswick regulations would require anyone crossing into the province from the U.S. to quarantine for two weeks — a process that would likely be unsustainable for inspectors and supervisors responsible for overseeing construction in both countries.
“We’re obviously hoping they won’t have to quarantine every time,” New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure project manager Tracy MacDonald said.
Reed & Reed is working on a proposal for the provincial health authorities to avoid that, but building a plan based on safety regulations that have changed several times has been challenging. Reed & Reed superintendent Greg Letourneau called the Canadian restrictions “a moving target.”
The company is hoping for a lift on border restrictions before they have to begin building permanent structures in June, Reed & Reed CEO Jackson Parker said in April. But both U.S. and Canadian governments have consistently pushed back the border-opening date — most recently to May 21.
The pandemic has changed the communication process as well — to mixed ends. On the one hand, it has increased ease-of-access between the numerous entities working on the bridge and the neighboring, federally managed Madawaska land port of entry project, Letourneau said. On the other hand, he recently found himself in a two-hour-long Zoom call with dozens of stakeholders vying for their ideas and opinions to be heard.
“That’s one downfall,” Letourneau said.
In addition to the circumstances the pandemic has wrought, there are complicating factors that come with any Maine-New Brunswick project. For example, despite being less than a football field’s length away from each other, Madawaska and Edmundston are in different time zones.
Project leaders also need to produce materials for the public in both English and French — New Brunswick’s laws require equal access for speakers who prefer either of the province’s two official languages.
Regular work and permit restrictions that inhibit many U.S. citizens from working in Canada and vice versa mean that like many other international bridges, this one has to be built from two directions by two different contractors.
Overlapping federal regulations on everything from work permitting to environmental and wildlife protections mean the rulebook for international projects is a negotiation rather than a hard-and-fast process.
“The fish don’t know where the border is,” MacDonald said. “We have to blend [the regulations] to be sure we’re meeting the strictest requirements in both jurisdictions.”
At a tour with local high school students on April 26, Letourneau said that one of the negotiated rules calls for builders to fire a warning shot into the water for fish every time they use the piston-powered tools for drilling piers into the riverbed.
For Letourneau, the project’s distinct challenges come from factors entirely outside regulations for COVID-19 or construction between the two countries.
Instead, he said “mother nature” would be the greatest obstacle for the builders. For one, annual ice outs on the St. John River mean a shortened construction season — all equipment has to be out of the water by Feb. 15 until the river is clear again.
Contractors also have to prepare for the impacts of erosion on the steep graded banks of the river and intense flooding.
“One of the border agents on the U.S. side when I was down there pointed and said [the river] will get 18 feet high from where it is on the existing piers,” Lathe said.
Given everything complicating the project, reaching a successful outcome will depend on the communication between all those involved: federal governments, regional authorities, local leaders and of course the builders themselves, Lathe said.
“I just think more than anything establishing good working relations is what makes a project like this click and gets you to the finish line.”