KITTERY – On Wednesday, Justin Hebert was feeling upbeat about the holiday business at his fish market and restaurant, on Route 1 between downtown Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery’s shopping district.

On Thursday, he was worried about paying his employees and covering his family’s bills.

The Memorial Bridge, which carries Route 1 traffic across the Piscataqua River, was closed to traffic at noon Thursday after an inspection revealed structural problems. Now, only pedestrians and bicyclists can cross.

Officials in Maine and New Hampshire said it is unclear how long the 87-year-old bridge will be closed — or even if it will be fixed and reopened at all.

The steel bridge is scheduled to be demolished in 18 months to make way for a new bridge, which would open about 18 months after that.

Business owners in Kittery said even a brief closure during the holidays would be bad. And, like Hebert, they didn’t even want to think about a three-year closure.

“All day, I’ve been pulling my hair out,” he said, standing behind the counter at Hebert Brothers Seafood. “We are on the deadest dead end we could be on.”

Hebert’s business is on Badger’s Island, at the Maine end of the closed bridge. When the Memorial Bridge closed for five weeks in the fall of 2009, his business dropped about 40 percent. “I lost all types of money,” he said.

Business owners here say they rely nearly as much on customers from New Hampshire as they do on those from Maine. Customers could still get here from Portsmouth in 15 to 20 minutes. But they would have to go out of their way, rather than stop while passing by on Route 1.

“A lot of people know that we’re right over the bridge,” said Val Warrington, manager at Warren’s Lobster House.

The restaurant, like many businesses along Route 1 here, is still decorated with a large yellow “Save the Bridge” banner. It’s a reminder of the long, and ultimately successful, campaign to win political support and funding to replace the old bridge instead of shutting it down.

Relieved business owners had started to make plans for the 18-month construction closure in 2012.

“We were hoping to get the next summer and fall in,” said Jim Spencer, owner of Carl’s Meat Market and Golden Harvest Produce Market.

Now, Spencer hopes that repairs won’t take so much time and money that the two states will decide to simply write off the old bridge.

“If (fixing) it is feasible, I’m hearing four to six weeks and they could reopen it,” Spencer said. “If it’s not feasible, it’s down and out.”

A spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, which found the structural problems during an inspection last week, said the states are hopeful about repairs but must do more analysis.

Bill Boynton said the bridge was declared unsafe because of the deterioration of two gusset plates, which connect beams and trusses to load-bearing columns.

The department has been inspecting the bridge every six months because of its deterioration, he said. Rusting pieces of the bridge were seen falling into the river last summer.

It took five weeks and $150,000 to repair a similar gusset plate problem in 2009, he said. And that was before the state decided to demolish the bridge in 2012.

“It’s not a quick fix,” Boynton said. “One obvious question is: Are you putting good money after bad” by repairing the bridge?

Boynton said the state agencies are trying to determine whether the repairs can be done at a reasonable cost. They are well aware of the impact the closure has on businesses on both sides of the bridge.

“I think our feeling right now is, this is doable,” he said. “If we can fix it, we will.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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