A couple weeks ago, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) declared the historic Frank J. Wood Bridge, a three-span polygonal Warren through truss bridge with riveted connections and one-rhombus Howe lattice portal bracings to be a liability, deciding for the modernity with replacing the structure with a concrete one, to be built alongside the 1932 structure, with the old structure to be removed shortly afterwards. This was confirmed through multiple news outlets as well as the agency’s website.
In the eyes of locals, the news story is considered fake news and have an alternative news story to share, one that sheds light on MDOT’s neglect of historic structures. As the environmental surveys are going to be carried out, much of which in connection with Section 106- 4f of the Historic Preservation Laws of 1966, locals, like John Graham, a realtor in Topsham and one of the members of the committee to save and restore the bridge, are stepping up to the plate and planning to turn the heat on MDOT, to force the agency to rescind the decision and look at constructive ways to keep the bridge in service, using more than enough notable examples to go around.
In an interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, Mr. Graham provides us with a glimpse of the historic significance of the Frank Wood Bridge, why MDOT has not taken historic bridge preservation seriously – following the path of neighboring New Hampshire – and measures that are planned to fight for the preservation of their prized historic landmark.
- First and foremost, how significant is the Frank J Wood Bridge in terms of its history and ties with the communities of Brunswick and Topsham?
The bridge was built in 1932. It crosses what was three natural falls, one being so high it stopped the sturgeon from going any higher to spawn and was one of the best fishing areas for the Native Americans and there is recorded history as early as 1620 of settlers using it as a fishing spot. The bridge is flanked on each side by mill building which still stand and were both in operation one into the sixties and the other into the eighties. The Mills have both been redeveloped but retain their historical nature and the three structures – the two mills and the bridge create a recognized Industrial district. If the bridge is removed the district will no longer exist. The bridge has been the meeting place of both towns and held Memorial day parade celebrations every year. President Johnson once crossed it in his motorcade. Pictures of the bridge appear on numerous websites, on last year’s phonebook cover, it is the one instantly recognizable icon of both communities (Topsham and Brunswick, Maine).
- The bridge was named after Frank J. Wood. Who was he and how important was he to the communities/ area?
Frank J. Wood was a local farmer and paper maker – worked in the Topsham Mill. He is credited with suggesting the current location of the bridge and died childless shortly after the bridge was completed.
A write-up on the bridge and its history can be viewed by clicking here.
- How long has MaineDOT been trying to replace this bridge? What are their arguments for replacing it?
MDOT has been systematically not maintaining older thru-truss bridges for decades. The last time the bridge was painted was 1980. They proposed removing it in 2004 (?) and then again in 2015. They have very weak arguments – mainly cost.
Note: There are some examples of historic bridges in Maine that have been taken down, solely for that reason. Click on the following bridges below:
- Your arguments against replacing the bridge – why should the bridge be preserved?
Why not? The bridge is exceptionally wide for its time (30 feet) and tall (14.8 feet). It was built to have two lanes of traffic and a coal car trolly line down the center. The bridge if properly maintained could be around for many more generations. The State is rapidly losing what was once a fairly common bridge type and the location and setting of this one is exceptional. It is also not functionally obsolete like so many are. MDOT had a plan in the mid-eighties to put three lanes of traffic across it. It can easily handle two ten foot travel lanes and two five foot bike lanes. Just upstream is a restored suspension walking bridge. Maine has few economic things driving it currently and our historic downtowns and historical structures create a unique sense of place. This drives our tourism industry and attracts both business and residence to the area. The new “low cost” alternative does not fit the location.
- Maine DOT had presented four proposals for the bridge, two of which had to do with rehabilitation. Can you describe how the bridges would be rehabilitated? Which of the two plans do most of the people favor?
The rehabilitated bridges would both have completely new decks installed and minor repair to one bottom cord and a complete paint job. The other alternative adds a second sidewalk. It is unclear if a second sidewalk is favored or not. MDOT has really created a dialogue of only new, or old and rusty. I personally do not see the need for a second sidewalk and look at the New Hope – Lambertville Bridge between PA and NJ as a great example of a bridge between two historical downtowns that has only one sidewalk and handles as many as 14,000 pedestrians in a single weekend. That bridge is actually longer and also has a newer bypass bridge, although the bypass here is closer.
Please click here to view the page of the New Hope – Lambertville Bridge
A couple other bridge examples from Minnesota also follow the same pattern, such as the Broadway Avenue Bridge in St. Peter as well as the Washington Avenue and Merriam Street Bridges in Minneapolis, for example.
- After the DOT’s decision to replace the bridge, you presented a counter-statement, claiming that the agency had not done enough to conduct feasibility studies on the bridge, specifically looking at the options carefully and selecting the rehabilitation option. Can you explain further what they didn’t do that they should have done, let alone what they did which would be considered illegal in your terms?
They never have seriously considered rehabilitation and have hired a consulting firm that does not have experience in rehabilitation. The quotes that they have made public are wildly high according to the experts we have run the numbers by. They have used this method to sway public opinion. MDOT came out with a preferred alternative – the new upstream bridge before the 106 process even begin. This is not how the process is meant to take place. They need to hire a qualified firm to give realistic rehab and long-term maintenance costs for the bridge. The main thing they initially failed to do was to say they were going to conduct a full Environment Assessment EA. They have since (this week) notified us that they now plan to do so. If it is necessary to sue it will be after the EA is complete and the 4f process is done. We are gearing up for the 4f process because this is the law that actually has some teeth and where we can win. MDOT has publicly stated that it is feasible to rehab the bridge. We had several small victories during the 106 process where we were able to get them to agree to the rehab with one sidewalk fit the purpose and need and that the removal of the bridge would be both an adverse affect to the bridge itself and also to the industrial district mentioned above.
- In light of the decision by the DOT, what steps are you considering taking at this point?
We were all fully expecting this decision as they had made it over a year ago and we forced them to follow the law and actually do a real 106 process. We are gearing up for the 4f and a possible legal battle there. We are in the process of securing an engineering firm to do an independent analysis of the bridge rehabilitation costs. This has proven very difficult because no firm in the East will go up against MDOT for they are a big client. Many have spoken to us off record but none will actually put a report together. We have found several from across the country that are willing. The battle now is all in the term “prudent”. We have forced MDOT to only rely on life cycle costs to make this argument. The cost we believe is overstated for this sole purpose.
- Who else has been helping you with supporting the bridge in terms of consultancy, legal action, fundraising, meetings, etc.?
There is a core group of about 10 of us with two very generous financial backers. We have an excellent local attorney and engineers and professors from around the country that we have been meeting with.
- Should the DOT be forced to rescind their decision and favor restoring the bridge, are there going to be any fundraising options, etc. for the bridge?
When MDOT is forced to maintain the historic structures they are charged with maintaining; the State and Federal government will pay for it. The fundraising option, in this case, is called taxes. That said there is talk of creating a yearly festival centered around the bridge for which we would raise money.
- With regard to restoring the bridge, what would the newly restored bridge look like in comparison to the proposed replacement? Would there be a park area, etc.?
The restored bridge would look identical to the bridge we have but painted with a new coat of green paint. The only difference would be that the deck would no longer have metal grates down each side and would have slightly narrower travel lanes and actual bike lanes painted on. The new bridge is a flat highway overpass bridge. You can see pictures of both on the Facebook page.
- What is the general mood at the moment in response to the DOT’s wanting to replace the bridge?
The group’s mood is one of continued optimism. We have been expecting this day. It is just another step closer till we can save the bridge. The community is torn between in favor and not in favor although the not in favor have been fed really misleading information from MDOT.
While some communities and regions have stepped aside to let the DOTs and other local agencies tear down their structures, many of which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are enough pockets of examples of people, like the communities of Brunswick and Topsham are working to impede the progress of MDOT, using experts from across the country to prove that just because one bridge part is bad, does not mean the whole bridge needs to come down. Instead, they want to set an example for other DOTs in the US, proving that the age of wasting materials and destroying heritages is not in the best interest, no matter how the arguments are packaged and presented. It is hoped that this successful trend will force others to think about their own infrastructure and use rational thinking instead of the mentality which means, haste makes waste.
The Chroicles will keep you informed on the latest with the Frank Wood Bridge. You can also follow the Friends of the Frank Wood Bridge by clicking onto its Facebook page here.
Special Thanks to John Graham for his help in the interview and best of luck in efforts to stop the replacement process, slated to begin next year.