The Universal Notebook: A bridge too old

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The Battle of the Bridge in Brunswick and Topsham is being fought with lawn signs and lawsuits.

“Save the FJWB” signs have been all over town for a long time, urging the Maine Department of Transportation not to replace the Frank J. Wood Bridge, the rusted green metal trusswork bridge that carries Routes 24/201 across the Androscoggin.

Some weeks ago, the pro-preservation signs were joined by the pro-replacement signs of Bridge to the Future, a new local group urging, well, who I’m not sure, to “Support a Better Bridge … A Brighter Future.” 

I’m not sure who or why they are urging people to support replacement of the FJWB because there is no referendum or state or local decision coming up. MDOT decided years ago to replace the 89-year old span. 

The Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, Historic Bridge Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sued to stop the replacement, lost, and are now appealing that decision. A ruling on the appeal is expected this month. If the appeals court upholds the lower-court decision, MDOT will put the bridge project out to bid in November.

I wasn’t sure what I thought, so I read the lawsuit and talked to folks on both sides.

The first issue is probably whether the FJWB is actually historic or just old. It was built in 1932 as a trolley bridge, which is what it looks like.

On one hand, the riveted trusswork construction fits in nicely with the 19th century industrial aesthetic of the red brick Cabot Mill on the Brunswick side, the hydro dam beside it, and the yellow brick Pejepscot Mill on the Topsham side.

On the other, you could have a legitimate debate over whether the FJWB is a landmark or an eyesore. Maine has lost 47 through truss bridges in the 21st century. I’ll buy the Bridge to the Future argument that it’s just old.

The Bridge to the Future folks argue that safety is their primary concern and tout the bike paths and pedestrian sidewalks that are part of the plans for a new bridge. But a renovated bridge would be just as safe as a new bridge. So let’s call the safety issue a draw.

Cost is a squirrelly issue. The Friends of FJWB insist MDOT inflated the cost of renovation and deflated the cost of replacement. The most recent numbers I can find put the cost of replacement at $21.8 million and the cost of repair at $15 million. Common sense would tell you that repair would be cheaper than replacement. 

I had thought inconvenience might be the deciding factor, but neither rehabilitation nor replacement will require long closures. The proposed new bridge, which looks rather like a Hot Wheels racetrack in renderings, would be constructed next to the old one and a temporary bridge would be built in the event of rehabbing the old one.

“The bridge is the symbol of Topsham and Brunswick,” says Realtor John Graham, president of the Friends group. “I like the historical feeling of the towns.”

“This is something that was decided a number of years ago by experts,” says banker Larissa Darcy, a member of the FJWB design advisory committee and spokesperson for the replacement group. “It’s necessary for safety reasons.”

Preservationists want to preserve it and the MDOT wants to replace it. The courts will decide. My guess is the FJWB is history. But if it came to a vote I’d probably vote to preserve it.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.