PORTLAND — Riverside Street is lined with businesses in the area near Exit 48 of the Maine Turnpike. That could pose a big financial headache for turnpike planners as they try to develop a bridge replacement plan that will keep business owners happy.

About 20 people, most of them business owners, attended a public meeting Thursday night at the Howard Johnson’s Conference Center to review three options for replacing the Exit 48 bridge over the turnpike.

One option, by far the most controversial, would require that Exit 48 northbound be shut down for nine months while the bridge is rebuilt. A second option would keep the bridge partially open. The third would keep the bridge open during construction, but would cost the most money.

The Maine Turnpike Authority hasn’t made its final decision yet, and probably won’t for another month or so.

“It’s going to become a nightmare,” said Eric Johnson, general manager of the Berlin City/Lexus car dealership on Riverside Street, referring to the closure option. “People will stop coming to this area altogether.”

Bob Driscoll, an engineer hired by the turnpike authority, said the Exit 48 bridge was built in 1955. “It’s really at the end of its useful life,” he said.

The authority plans to begin construction early next year.

Dan Paradis, a spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority, said about 18,000 vehicles pass through the Exit 48 toll plaza daily, making it one of the most heavily used interchanges on the turnpike.

Several business owners, including Dan Loan of Exit 48 Motor Sales, noted that during the summer, tourists get off at Exit 48, drive a short distance to Route 302 and head north to destinations in the Lakes Region.

“The impact (of closing the bridge) is not just on this street or this corner, it will have an impact on Route 302 all the way to Bridgton and North Conway,” said Loan, who lives in Casco.

Closing the bridge and rebuilding it would cost about $7.5 million and take nine months. The option preferred by nearly all of the business owners at Thursday’s meeting would cost $8.5 million and take 12 months.

Under that option, the turnpike authority would build a new bridge just to the north of the existing bridge. Though it would cost more and have a greater environmental impact, it would keep the Exit 48 bridge open.

A third option would take 14 to 18 months, keep the northbound off-ramp open to traffic, close the northbound on-ramp and cost $8 million. A new bridge would be built next to the existing bridge.

“Ninety percent, if not more, of our business is from people who use the turnpike,” said Kathleen Vance, owner of the Maplewood Dance Center on nearby Warren Avenue. “I think we would lose a lot of our business if the bridge is closed. People will get frustrated if they have to take a detour. Every attempt should be made to keep the bridge open.”

“It would be pretty devastating for us to have that bridge closed,” said Mark Heisler, general manager of Howard Johnson’s. “We rely on a lot of walk-in traffic. It has been a couple of difficult years in our industry. We don’t need another couple of bad years.”

Richard Kelly, who manages the Holiday Inn at Exit 48, said the project has the potential to disturb his guests. It will likely involve some night work.

“It’s a nightmare to me, especially the noise,” Kelly said. “Between the two of us (including Howard Johnson’s), you are talking about hundreds of thousands of lost dollars.”

Riverside Street, between Brighton and Warren avenues, has an eclectic mix of businesses.

Besides the Holiday Inn and the Howard Johnson’s, there is a consignment shop, the Kohl’s shopping plaza, a Burger King, a strip club called PT’s Showclub, Lockard’s Auto Body Shop, the Berlin City car dealership, Home Depot and a Hammond Lumber showroom, to name just a few.

Maria Locke operates Upscale Consignment and Furniture on Riverside Street, across from Exit 48. She couldn’t attend Thursday’s meeting, but offered a different viewpoint.

“I know that nine months is going to be an inconvenience, but we would almost prefer the nine-month shutdown. It’s a lot shorter and we’re a destination. People will find their way to us,” Locke said.

Conrad Welzel, the turnpike authority’s government relations manager, said the authority is still accepting public comment, but will likely choose an option in July.

Comments can be e-mailed to Bruce Pelletier at [email protected]

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]