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8/7/2013 2:00:00 PM
State Focuses On Bridge, Sets Roadwork Aside In South Bristol
A view from the west of the new design for a bridge over The Gut in South Bristol. (Image courtesy Maine Department of Transportation)
A view from the west of the new design for a bridge over The Gut in South Bristol. (Image courtesy Maine Department of Transportation)
By J.W. Oliver

The Maine Department of Transportation has a new design in place for the South Bristol bridge project, but has set aside plans for nearby roadwork.

The department decided to eliminate the roadwork after receiving calls, emails and letters in protest of the department's plan to install storm drains and pave the shoulders of approximately 4000 feet of Route 129 between the school and the post office.

"We need to deliver a bridge," DOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note said after an Aug. 1 meeting about the project at South Bristol School. "That swing bridge is breaking down all the time."

"I think everybody's ready to move forward, so that's what we decided to do - focus on the bridge and move forward," Van Note said.

The department has final plans for the roadwork in place, DOT Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor said, and if, in the future, the community presents a "united front" in favor of the work, the department could reconsider.

"You need to approach us at this point," Taylor said.

"I would challenge you, as a community, to have that conversation and get back to us," she said.

South Bristol Board of Selectmen Chairman Chester Rice said the DOT asked the selectmen a couple of weeks ago whether they would "give up the road portion of this project to save the bridge."

"We did say 'yes' because the most important part of this project is to get the bridge built," Rice said. "We can do without the road, but we need the bridge."

Rice thanked the department for "going the extra mile for the community" in the lengthy design and planning process. "I hope everybody is happy with what the state has done," he said.

The DOT and engineering firm Hardesty & Hanover LLP plan to complete the design and advertise for bids by late 2013 with the goal of opening the new bridge to traffic by mid-2015.

The comments from the large crowd in the school gym were generally in favor of the new design.

The department bills the design as a compromise between its original design and an alternate design by Boston bridge architect Miguel Rosales.

A group of South Bristol property owners and residents objected to the state's original design and commissioned Rosales to design an alternative last year.

The new state design follows the general appearance and more modest size of the Rosales design while making adjustments in order to meet the state's goals for the life span and maintenance costs of the structure.

For example, the state adjusted the design to ensure the bridge's moving parts will be well above the waterline.

"We have a lot of experience with designing machinery ... to ensure that 75-to-100-year life," said Hardesty & Hanover Chief Engineer of Bridges and Movable Structures Peter Roody.

"We like the scale of Miguel's design; we thought it really fit the site," Roody said. "In terms of scale, between the two bridges, they're very close."

Rosales, whose body of work includes the highly recognizable Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which carries I-93 over the Charles River in Boston, attended the meeting and voiced support for the new design.

Roody and Taylor fielded questions for about 15 minutes after their presentation.

A couple of year-round residents said most people who live and work in the town, especially those who stay year-round, support the roadwork, while a vocal minority with resources to lobby the department opposes the plan.

Some residents said they would have attended meetings or written letters to support the roadwork if they had known the department was considering a change of plans.

The Department of Transportation received one email and one letter about the roadwork, Director of Communications Ted Talbot said. The other letters referenced were letters to the editor in The Lincoln County News.

Some of the information in the letters reflects a "misunderstanding" about the roadwork plans, Taylor said. "I think we could do a better job getting the real information to folks," she said.

Some of the letters refer to state plans to remove hills and straighten curves. "There were no plans to flatten hills or straighten curves," Taylor said.

The letters expressed concern that the roadwork would encourage speeding, "visually transform the rural village into an urban environment," as Peter Erskine said in one letter, and otherwise ruin the character of the village.

Erskine and others also placed the price tag of the work in the "millions of dollars." The decision to cancel the roadwork cut just $1.5 million from the $9.5 million estimate for the entire bridge project.

Despite the spread of misinformation, the department was wary of the apparent divide in the community. "I don't think there's any clear statement from the community one way or another what they want," Van Note, the deputy commissioner, said after the meeting.

Taylor and Van Note also cited rising project costs as a result of the change in bridge designs as a contributing factor to the decision to forgo the roadwork.

Non-roadwork questions were about details of the plan, such as the appearance of the bridge-tender's building and the status of discussions with local utilities about burying utility wires.

"The cost to relocate [utility wires] underground was really cost-prohibitive to your local utilities, and they were really having a hard time to absorb the cost of that," Taylor said.

"We cannot use state money to pay for [burying] utility wires," she said. "That is against state law."

The state is willing to work with the utilities, Central Maine Power Company and Tidewater Telecom Inc., to facilitate the process if the utilities agree to move the wires underground, she said.

The department is open to conversations with the community about the aesthetics of the bridge-tender's house, Taylor said.

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