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When a bridge has deteriorated so badly that it can no longer safely carry school buses, trucks and cars, the attractiveness of the bridge and its historic character should become secondary to safety.
That is at the crux of an ongoing debate about the Frank J. Wood Bridge, which crosses the Androscoggin River, connecting Brunswick and Topsham. The Maine Department of Transportation has proposed for years to replace the bridge, which continues to deteriorate, with a newer span.
A group called Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge has fought that work, arguing that the bridge, which was built in 1932, is historic and should be rehabilitated rather than torn down and replaced. The state said rehabilitating the existing bridge would cost twice as much as building a new bridge over the lifespan of a new structure.
The battle has reached the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which could issue a ruling at any time.
In the meantime, the Department of Transportation, beginning Monday, has restricted traffic on the bridge to vehicles weighing less than 10 tons. That means box trucks, fire trucks and school buses can no longer cross it. These, and other heavy vehicles, will have to use the Route 1 bypass that crosses the Androscoggin farther downriver.
The new weight restrictions — the bridge was previously restricted to vehicles weighing less than 25 tons — come after a September inspection report found widespread corrosion in the bridge’s metal and cracks in the concrete abutments.
“The steel deck needle beams that support the deck, adjacent to open grid curbs … are in poor/ serious condition and exhibited severe deterioration, with section loss up to 100 percent,” the inspector wrote in the Sept. 14 report, which includes extensive photographs of the deterioration.
The bridge is what is known as a “fracture critical” structure. This means that if one part of the bridge fractures, the entire structure is likely to collapse. Truss bridges like the Wood bridge are known to have this design and are not typically built anymore.
That’s why the Department of Transportation has been working for years to replace the bridge. A new bridge would also have bike lanes and better space for pedestrians. The department hopes to put the project out to bid this year, but this could be delayed by legal challenges.
The Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge contend that the structure is historic and should be rehabilitated, not replaced.
“It’s really actually not in terrible condition,” Phinney Baxter White with Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge told CBS 13 after the inspection report.
“Why not paint it? Why not replace the deck and still have this historic structure?” White said.
The bridge is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission said the bridge was eligible “for its significant association with regional interurban trolley lines. While most of the features associated with the interurban line are gone, the preservation commission noted that the standard width and height of the bridge, set specifically to accommodate the interurban line was adequate integrity to convey that significance,” according to a Department of Transportation memo.
With all due respect to those who seek to preserve the aged bridge, conveying the significance of an interurban trolley line that is long gone should take a back seat to ensuring the safety of people and vehicles that cross the bridge between Topsham and Brunswick.
We understand that the new bridge design the Department of Transportation has proposed is not as aesthetically pleasing as the old truss bridge and that a lack of more frequent maintenance has worsened the condition of the existing bridge, but the most recent inspection report confirms its dangerous status.
Given the deteriorated state of the bridge and the restrictions that demands, it is time for a replacement.