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Battle over future of Frank J. Wood Bridge heads to First Circuit Court

September 24, 2021

Reuben Schafir
FRIENDS OF THE FRANK J. WOOD BRIDGE: Those in favor of keeping the bridge are arguing for its historic component and the price of rehabilitation possibly being less.

For 89 years, the Frank J. Wood Bridge has traversed the Androscoggin River at the northern end of Maine Street in the Town of Brunswick. For the past five years, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) has pushed for a plan to tear it down. MDOT and a new local activist group claim that building a replacement bridge would be cheaper, safer and better than rehabilitating the existing structure.

Last Monday, a small but persistent group of Brunswick and Topsham residents took their argument that the current bridge ought to be preserved to a hearing at the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. Now at the final stages of what has been a five-year war over the future of the “fracture-critical” structure, nobody is budging—meanwhile, the dilapidated, heavily-trafficked bridge isn’t getting any younger.

Years of wear and tear have left the bridge’s paint job peeling and rusty, its sidewalk supports partially eroded and its superstructure showing significant damage. MDOT recently classified the bridge as “fracture level critical”—meaning, by its own definition, that “a [structural] failure … would result in a collapse of a portion or all of the bridge deck.” Although severe, this designation is not uncommon, as there are over 18,000 bridges classified as “fracture level critical” in the United States.

The “fracture level critical” assessment prompted MDOT to begin the process of investigating plans to rehabilitate or replace the bridge in 2015. This started at the local level, with open meetings in both Brunswick and Topsham to solicit residents’ opinions. John Graham, a real estate broker from Topsham, attended a few of those meetings, and has since taken up the position of President of the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge (Friends of the FJWB), a community activist group supporting rehabilitation. The group is composed of a dozen or so permanent members who met during those preliminary meetings, as well as over 1,400 followers on social media and a brigade of local homeowners showing their support with green “#SaveTheFJWB” yard signs. Since 2016, Friends of the FJWB has repeatedly made its case in Town Meetings, in front yards, and in court—and five years after MDOT approved the construction of a new bridge, the FJWB is still standing. In Graham’s opinion, this constitutes a success.

The organization’s argument rests on the assertion that replacing the bridge is a violation of federal law. They claim that because the bridge is eligible for historical listing in the National Register of Historic Places, it’s protected under clause 4(f) of the 1966 Department of Transportation Act, which states that MDOT may not approve of any project that requires the use of land from a designated historic site unless there is no “feasible and prudent” alternative to the use of the site. Crucially, although the bridge was found to be eligible for this historic status in 2017, it has not yet been explicitly deemed historic by the national organization.

“If MDOT’s engineers came out and said the bridge wasn’t salvageable, I would have been pushing for a like-kind replacement  … from the beginning,” Graham said. “But MDOT came out and said they can rehabilitate the bridge for equal money. The 4(f) is not debatable. The law’s clear about what’s defined as historic and what isn’t. People’s opinions vary, but unfortunately for them … the law says if it’s prudent and feasible to do so, you must maintain it and you must rehabilitate it. That’s the crux of our lawsuit. MDOT had a solution, went looking for a problem and cooked the books along the way to try to make their solution fit their problem.”

The Friends of the FJWB retained Andrea C. Ferster, a leading attorney and nationally recognized expert on historic preservation law, to make its case. So far, hearings and amicus briefs have focused on the bridge’s historic value as well as the claim that MDOT has, to borrow Graham’s phrase, “cooked the books”—that is to say, intentionally underestimated the costs of replacement and inflated the projected costs of rehabilitation in order to make constructing a new bridge look more economical. Judges have ruled against that assertion three times so far, but the case advanced via the appeals process from state district court to a hearing in the First Circuit Court of Appeals last Monday. The results of that case will be released in the coming weeks.

“Throughout these legal proceedings, the Maine Department of Transportation’s position has not changed: the Frank J. Wood Bridge needs to be replaced,” wrote MDOT Director of Communications Paul Merrill in an email to the Orient. “It is a 90-year-old, fracture-critical bridge that is in poor and worsening condition. We anticipate putting the construction contract out to bid later this year.” Merrill later wrote that he expects construction of a bridge to begin early next year, with the expected completion date “in the second half of 2025.”

Friends of the FJWB’s campaign has faced its fair share of resistance at the local level, too. This summer, two of the group’s signs on the Brunswick side of the bridge were vandalized and destroyed. Both the Topsham and Brunswick Select Boards voted overwhelmingly in favor of replacement, persuaded by what Graham called a MDOT-directed “propaganda campaign.” And, most recently, a rival neighbor organization, Bridge to the Future, has been organizing local residents in favor of replacing the bridge.

Reuben Schafir
BRIDGE TO THE FUTURE: Those in favor of building a new bridge are pointing to the improved safety and community benefits that will come with it.

Larissa Darcy, a Brunswick resident and Vice President of Commercial Lending at Norway Savings Bank, started Bridge to the Future this past June. Darcy voluntarily served on the original design advisory committee put together by MDOT five years ago, where she learned about what she saw as the significant benefits of replacing the bridge and got an insider look at the designs for the potential replacement.

“The design was put out, the decision was made, but [construction] still hasn’t happened,” Darcy said. “We want people to know about everything that comes with the new bridge and to let people know that we support it. We felt the majority of the people supported the new bridge, but their voices were not being heard. There’s a small group that’s in opposition, but we’re basically sending the message of the majority—[that they] support the new bridge.”

Whereas Graham’s case rests on the legal question of replacing a historic site, Darcy is more concerned with sharing the supposed benefits of the new designs, as well as stressing the safety concerns at hand.

“Safety is the single most important thing, and time is not helping that at all. We could have had a new bridge right now if that construction was started when it was approved—that bridge has not gotten younger in the last six years,” Darcy said.

As Darcy argues, replacing the bridge is not only essential from a safety standpoint, but the new design would also bring a wealth of other community benefits. Mockups of the design feature dedicated bike lanes on both sides of the bridge, protected sidewalks with viewing areas over the dam and Bowdoin Mill and a restoration of Anniversary Park on the Brunswick side of the river as well as a new public park on the Topsham side.

“We found a lot of people hadn’t even seen the design of the new bridge. People had no ideas about [its benefits],” Darcy said. “We do have a historic component as part of the new bridge that commemorates not just the Frank J. Wood bridge but also bridges before it … It’s about the future, and connecting us forward, and not just safety but all the other benefits that come along with that. That really has been our message and our focus all along. We let the experts make the decision, the decision was made, and now we’re just letting the public know about the benefits that come along with that.”

Richard Mersereau ’69 is one of those members of the public. A Bowdoin alum and longtime College administrator until his retirement in 2015, Mersereau lives in Brunswick and is one of the 935 local residents who has expressed his support for replacement by liking Darcy’s Facebook page.

“I just from day one thought that, in this case, new is better,” Mersereau said. “[It’s] safer, wider, more beautiful … so I think it’s a win across the board. We’ve got a deteriorating bridge that needs to be replaced one way or another, and the opposition has dragged it out just as long as possible.”

The way Graham sees it, organizing Bridge to the Future makes no sense—especially right now.

“The new bridge group that’s formed in the last month is plexing to me in the sense of, why?” said Graham. “We’ve been at this for six years, so why would you start something now? It’s not a popularity contest. There are federal laws for a reason. If you want to change federal laws, then you can try and change federal laws. Even if everybody voted that we don’t like the historical building, it doesn’t mean the building still isn’t protected under the law. It’s not a popularity contest, so why are they spending money on ads?”

Bridge to the Future has had no role in the ongoing court dispute, which has been solely between the Friends of the FJWB and MDOT. Monday’s hearing revolved primarily around MDOT’s financial assessments of the intended replacement plan.

In 2019, MDOT estimated the cost of rehabilitation to be $15 million with a total service life cost of $35.2 million over 75 years. Conversely, it estimated the cost of replacement at $13 million with a total service life cost of $17.3 million over 100 years. Attorney Furster argued that the accounting was manipulated in such a way that in reality, the price differential between the two would be significantly less, and rehabilitation might even be a cheaper option. The court will make the final decision on whether she is right in the coming weeks.

Furster may have a point—since the 2019 Environmental Assessment estimating the initial costs of replacement at $17.3 million, MDOT has increased this value to $21.8 million. According to Merrill, MDOT estimates that the cost of repainting the rehabilitated bridge would come to $12 million for three new paint jobs over 75 years, while painting the replacement would cost just $3.5 million for two new paint jobs over 100 years. Graham and others claim that these projected plans would not meet proper maintenance standards for a potential replacement bridge and are unnecessarily thorough (and expensive) for the potential rehabilitated bridge. As he claims, if MDOT were honest about its accounting, rehabilitation would prove a far more cost-conscious choice.

“We have a bridge,” Graham said. “For a fraction of the cost, we can bring it into the 21st century and continue to make it the icon that it is. [Pictures of] that bridge are everywhere from Bowdoin [admissions magazines] to the phone book … you see the bridge and two mills, and you know exactly where you are in the world. Place matters. We can make that bridge shine again, and there’s no reason we should throw it out.”

Rebecca Norden-Bright contributed to this report.

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