PORTLAND – The Maine Turnpike Authority has ruled out the most expensive option for replacing the Exit 48 bridge near the Portland-Westbrook line, a spokesman said Thursday.

The MTA’s Alternative 3, which would cost $8.5 million, was the option supported by nearly all of the 20 or so Riverside Street business owners who attended a public hearing on the project last month.

Though the option would cost $1 million more than the least expensive design, business owners say it would have the least impact on their establishments because it would not restrict traffic flow through the toll plaza.

Alternative 3 would keep the existing bridge open to northbound and southbound traffic while a new bridge is built just to the north.

MTA spokesman Conrad Welzel said the turnpike authority believes Alternative 2, which would close the northbound turnpike onramp, is the best option. It would cost $8 million and take 14 to 18 months to complete. Northbound traffic would be detoured to Exit 47.

“We feel that Alternative 2 is a reasonable compromise,” Welzel said Thursday. “From our perspective, Alternative 3 is off the table.”

Welzel said Alternative 3 not only is too costly, but it would require cutting down a large number of trees and would affect more residential abutters than the other options.

The heavily used Portland exit, with about 18,000 vehicles a day passing through the toll plaza, is home to multiple businesses — from Howard Johnson and Holiday Inn to Burger King, the Berlin City car dealership and PT’s Showclub, an adult entertainment venue. A Kohl’s shopping plaza is also within a few hundred feet of the toll plaza.

The question facing the turnpike authority is how it can replace the Exit 48 bridge, which was built in 1955, without harming the business community that has sprung up around it.

“Exit 48 is our identity. We use it as the basis for all of our branding. When people ask where we are, we say Exit 48. You drive off the ramp and you practically end up in our parking lot,” said Justin Gould, a partner in Exit 48 Motor Sales at 140 Riverside St.

“We favor Alternative 3,” Gould said.

Jason Smetana, manager of PT’s Showclub at 200 Riverside St., said he plans to launch an e-mail campaign aimed at persuading the MTA to go with Alternative 3. He estimates that PT’s could lose up to $1 million in business if any part of the bridge is closed for an extended period.

“A lot of our advertising uses Exit 48. We’re also a tourist spot. The summer months are when we make most of our money,” Smetana said.

Welzel said members of the MTA’s staff have been holding one-on-one meetings with Riverside Street property owners. Those meetings will continue today and into next week.

So far, public feedback — exclusive of last month’s public meeting — has been in support of Alternative 1. This option, the least expensive at $7.5 million, would close both the northbound onramp and offramp, but would take only nine months to complete.

Welzel said the Westbrook City Council approved a resolution this month in support of Alternative 1.

“This is a free-enterprise decision, not a bureaucratic decision,” said John Locke, the owner of Upscale Consignment and Furniture at 150 Riverside St., who supports Alternative 3.

He said customers drive to his store, which opened in 1979, from all over the state. Restricting access would hurt his business.

“What’s best for our business is to keep that exit open 24-7,” he said. “I’m sorry it’s going to cost a little more money, but I believe the turnpike authority needs to be more appreciative of the businesses that operate here. It’s a very high-performing exit because of us.”

Welzel said it will probably take another 10 days for the MTA to select a design option. In addition to meeting with business owners, Welzel said the authority might hold another public meeting given the controversy that has arisen.

Because so many businesses could be affected, the MTA is considering holding off on construction until after Labor Day 2011.

Comments are still being considered. They should be e-mailed to [email protected] turnpike.com.

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

[email protected]