The Memorial Bridge, which has carried Route 1 traffic across the Piscataqua River between Maine and New Hampshire for almost 90 years, will never have another vehicle cross it again.

Transportation officials from New Hampshire and Maine agreed Wednesday to permanently close the bridge to vehicular traffic — about a year ahead of what had been its expected closing date.

Sometime next year, the Memorial Bridge will be demolished and a new $90 million bridge built in its place.

The announcement, which took effect at 9 a.m., raised concerns at Route 1 businesses in Kittery, which rely on the bridge to bring shoppers and tourists from Portsmouth.

Now, those Kittery businesses will be located on an essentially dead end road with no hope of northbound traffic driving across the river from New Hampshire past their storefronts for the next three years. The new bridge is not expected to be ready for traffic until June 2014.

But, transportation officials said they could not in good conscience keep the old bridge open to traffic after reviewing recent engineering reports that showed it posed a safety hazard. New Hampshire is responsible for maintaining Memorial Bridge, though it is jointly owned with Maine.

“The decision to close the Memorial Bridge to motor vehicle traffic is being made to ensure the public’s safety,” George N. Campbell Jr., Commissioner for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said in a press release. “As commissioner, safety has to be my primary concern.”

Campbell said a recent inspection of the bridge revealed an accelerated rate of deterioration, which he said meant it could no longer support vehicular traffic. Campbell cited the bridge’s gusset plates as particularly worrisome. Gusset plates are thick sheets of steel used to connect beams and girders to bridge columns.

Campbell said the bridge will remain open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as commercial river traffic — the structure is equipped with a lift span — for the time being.

Bill Boynton, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said Memorial Bridge had carried about 12,000 vehicles a day between Portsmouth and Kittery.

Two other structures, the Route 1 bypass and Interstate 95 bridges, cross the river but Boynton said Route 1 businesses in Kittery will be directly affected by Memorial’s closure because travelers will be forced to take a more circuitous route to reach them.

Though the closure of Memorial Bridge has been talked about for months, no one expected the bridge to be shut down without warning.

“We knew it was coming, but to have it happen now, in the middle of our summer season is going to be tough,” said Colleen MacDonald, whose father, Scott Cunningham, owns Warren’s Lobster House on Route 1 in Kittery. “I wasn’t shocked, but we were hoping that the bridge would stay open until 2012.”

MacDonald said businesses on a stretch of Route 1 in Kittery known locally as gourmet alley — a collection of stores that include a gourmet food store, a meat market, a consignment shop and a produce market — will be hit the hardest by the dropoff in drive-by traffic.

“We are lucky in the sense that we are a destination restaurant,” she said.

Warren’s, which was established in 1940, can seat about 250 customers. MacDonald said she has already posted detour directions on the popular restaurant’s website, and has handed out discount coupons at various Portsmouth hotels in hopes visitors will use them.

“It’s going to have a definite impact on our business,” said MacDonald, who noted that during a recent night closure of the bridge their business dropped by 150 customers.

Another business that will be affected is the Golden Harvest produce market on Route 1.

“It’s going to be tough on us. The month of August is a good (business) month for everyone. A lot of people come here from Portsmouth. But, we’ll have to see. Hopefully, they’ll find their way over here,” said one of the store’s managers, David Guthrie.

Once the Memorial Bridge has been replaced, the two states plan to repair another Piscataqua River bridge.

Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge is slated for $110 million in repairs sometime in the next five years. The bridge, which serves as the Route 1 bypass, was built in 1940.

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

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