Opened in 1932 as part the Workers Protection Administration’s initiative to ‘upgrade’ America’s transportation infrastructure, the Frank J. Wood Bridge has become an iconic piece of Southern Maine’s post-industrial landscape. The 805-foot steel-truss bridge spans the Androscoggin River which divides Topsham and Brunswick and serves approximately 19,000 vehicles per day, as well as pedestrian traffic along its western side, and is bookended at either side of the river by rehabilitated historic mill complexes which house a variety of local businesses and services.
Interest in the bridge has grown significantly within the past several years owing to the introductions of proposals by Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), to replace the historic structure with a new bridge, resulting in an outcry among local and regional champions for its preservation. In May 2016, MDOT publicly announced plans to demolish the Frank J. Wood Bridge and build a new concrete bridge upstream, over the falls of the Androscoggin River. This determination was made prior to the commencement of any of the legally required historic and environmental reviews intended to determine whether an historic structure should be preserved.
Since 1999, Maine has lost 47 historic Warren Through Truss bridges, 23 of them listed or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. With so many bridges in Maine and a shortage of funds to repair and replace them, the question is whether MDOT is getting a complete lifetime from our existing bridges. While both Maine and New Hampshire DOTs appear eager to replace bridges, Vermont has found that rehabilitation is both financially feasible and advisable. Vermont assigns a longer lifetime to its existing bridges and a shorter lifetime to new bridges than Maine, thus demonstrating the cost savings available from a conservative approach to bridge replacement.
At present, whether or not the bridge is replaced the deck needs critical maintenance costing $800,000. More substantial rehabilitation will be required within the next five years to address other structural issues, namely the deterioration of essential truss bars and floor beams. Four options have been put forward to address these issues, including both replacement and repair options ranging from $13 million to $17 million.
The Frank J .Wood Bridge is not functionally obsolete as it was originally constructed to carry both cars and coal trains, making it able to handle almost twice as much weight as currently required. It is also wide enough to have two 10’ travel lanes, two 5’ bike lanes and a 6’ sidewalk; the proposed new bridge is only 2’ wider. The relative costs of rehab vs. new construction are very close. The question is has MDOT used the correct estimate of lifetimes for each option. Given the level of public interest and concern, the significant loss of historic bridges in Maine and a clear and financially responsible reuse option for this historic bridge it is essential that MDOT accurately and fairly consider rehabilitation of this local landmark.