News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 20, 2014
MDOT eases fears about Oceanville bridge repairs
Work to begin March 1

by Rich Hewitt

Officials from the Maine Department of Transportation met with a group of about 30 town residents and put to rest some of the concerns they had over planned repairs to the Oceanville Bridge.

The residents, most of them from the Oceanville section of town, were concerned about the planned work and the restrictions that the MDOT might place on the bridge, both during the repairs and after they were completed.

The big relief for residents—particularly those who work in Oceanville—was that there will be no weight limit on the repaired bridge once the work is completed.

“When the fix is done, any legal limit can go across the bridge,” Steve Thebarge, the MDOT regional manager in Bangor, told the residents.

Residents had raised concerns about the number of large vehicles that regularly travel across the bridge including tractor trailers and trucks hauling lobster boats and the problems it would cause if they could not cross the bridge. Both Thebarge and John Buxton, the deputy chief engineer and a department bridge maintenance engineer, said repeatedly that once the work is completed, all legal loads will be permitted.

Lowering the weight limit on the bridge had been an option after engineers inspected it last fall and determined that the structural problems on the 74-year-old bridge would require that it be replaced, Thebarge said. There is funding in the current department budget—about $50,000 to $60,000—to make temporary repairs that would strengthen the bridge, he said, but planning for a new bridge takes time.

Thebarge stressed that the project was a temporary repair and that the department planned to replace the bridge within the next three or four years.

The temporary repair project calls for the department to install three I-beams crossways underneath the existing bridge deck that will be bolted to two long girders installed lengthwise from abutment to abutment on top of the deck, transferring the weight on the bridge from the cross pieces to the long girders.

“We’ve done this before in years past and it works well,” Buxton said. “It’s reliable.”

The girders are three feet tall and will be placed on the existing bridge deck, which will narrow the already narrow travel way from 22 feet to 18 feet. Initial plans called for a travel way of about 14 feet, which would have reduced the travel way to a one lane road.

In response to questions as to whether they could strengthen the bridge and keep the existing 22-foot width, Buxton said they had to do some “fancy engineering” to get to the 18-foot width.

“I pushed every bit at 18 feet,” he said. “I can’t go any wider.”

But both he and Thebarge said that would be wide enough to allow two lanes of traffic on the bridge. He cautioned that it would be wide enough for two passenger cars to pass on the bridge, but would require larger trucks to stop and wait for another vehicle to cross.

Steve Landry, an MDOT traffic engineer, said the department could install signs warning operators of larger vehicles to wait for an approaching vehicle and suggested—and residents agreed—that was probably the case already.

“Even at 22 feet [the current width of the bridge], when two tractor trailers meet, they’re going to have to wait for each other,” he said. “That pretty much has to happen now anyway.”

The bridge already is posted as a narrow bridge.

Buxton said, however, that if the two-lane travel way did not work, they might have to limit the bridge to one-way traffic to ensure safety.

“If the two-way road isn’t working well, we can try it at one lane,” Buxton said. “Safety is the most important thing. Eighteen feet is not the end of the world.”

The 18-foot width might make snow plowing across the bridge a little tight, but what worried the town’s road foreman, Elwood Cobb, was the three-foot high, solid girder on both sides of the bridge. Cobb said he is now able to plow snow through the existing guard rails, but expressed concern that with a solid girder on either side of the bridge deck, there will be no place for the plowed snow to go.

Buxton said it may be possible to cut out sections of the existing concrete curb that would provide some space for the snow to fall through. If that won’t work, he said, they can look for another solution.

There will be delays at the bridge while the repair work is being done. But Thebarge said they would not be as long as one hour, the length of delays included in signs posted at the bridge site.

“When we place the steel beams on the bridge we can’t have traffic going over it,” he said. “It won’t be an hour—probably 15 to 20 minutes. We don’t want to have to inconvenience you any more than we need to.”

Buxton suggested that the longer time delays may have figured on crews placing both of the longer steel girders at the same time.

Buxton said the on-site crews would stay in touch regularly with Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris and would notify her when they knew ahead of time of any longer delays. Billings-Pezaris said she would develop an email list to notify residents so they could move their vehicles across the bridge if they needed to avoid the delays. The MDOT also will work with all emergency responders in town to ensure that they will be able to get across the bridge in an emergency while construction is under way.

“That’s standard,” Landry said. “We can close down work if emergency services are needed.”

Residents seemed satisfied with most of the responses from the MDOT officials, but still expressed concern about the approaches to the bridge and the lack of visibility for approaching vehicles. Landry said the department can develop new signs to alert motorists to the construction that could be installed at the approaches to the bridge. He added that he could work with the town to create additional signs to alert drivers farther back on the road toward Route 15. Because the road to the bridge is a town road, he said, the department could not place those signs.

Work is scheduled to begin on the bridge on March 1. Thebarge apologized for the short notice. He said that as soon as the engineers decided last fall that the bridge needed work, he should have scheduled a meeting with the townspeople.

“We started to look at the options and at that point we should have been here in front of you,” he said. “I know that caused a lot of angst and it should never have happened.”

The work is expected to take between three and four weeks to be completed. Meanwhile, there are funds in the MDOT budget to begin the engineering work for the replacement bridge. Although there are not a lot of design options for the new bridge, Buxton said the replacement would be wider than the existing bridge.

“We don’t build 22-foot bridges any more,” he said.