April 3, 2013

Damage to Maine-NH bridge still being assessed

Maine's Department of Transportation withdraws a preliminary repair estimate of $500,000.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Divers Wednesday discovered damage to an underwater granite pier on a busy bridge connecting Maine and New Hampshire that was struck by a 470-foot tanker Monday.

click image to enlarge

An aerial photo of the tanker Harbour Feature sitting sideways in the Piscataqua River after hitting the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge on Monday.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Red arrows point to two of bent supports that run between the lower railroad deck and the upper roadway deck of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge. The supports were damaged when the tanker Harbour Feature hit the bridge on Monday.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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Engineers have yet to estimate the cost of fixing the 73-year-old Sarah Mildred Long Bridge between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. He said the bridge would remain closed to vehicle traffic for two to four weeks. River traffic under the span has resumed.

The damaged granite was found on the southern of two underwater piers, Boynton said. Two steel trusses bent during the impact also must be replaced. Engineers are still examining the impact area, he said, and a private contractor is close to signing a deal to do repairs.

"The bridge took a big hit," said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. He released a repair estimate of about $500,000 early Wednesday, but withdrew it later. "There's a lot of different scenarios taking place at this point."

Both Maine and New Hampshire own the bridge, although New Hampshire operates its lift span, which gives access to the Piscataqua River.

The tanker, called the Harbour Feature, was also damaged in the crash. The impact caused a crack that is allowing water to leak into a ballast tank used to stabilize the vessel when it is empty. 

At the time of the accident the MS Harbour Feature was carrying tallow, made from wood pulp oil, and yellow grease. Nothing has spilled into the river. Steffen Thate, a spokesman for TB Marine Shipmanagement in Hamburg, the company responsible for the ship's management, said the company is working with U.S. authorities to determine what caused the tanker to come loose from its moorings at the New Hampshire State Pier in Portsmouth.

"We are investigating the unfortunate accident and cooperate fully with all state and federal government agencies," Thate wrote in an email.

Workers and business owners in Kittery were largely indifferent to the closure of the bridge, which is crossed by about 14,000 vehicles per day. Currently, only one of three bridges connecting Kittery to Portsmouth is open.

The tanker accident is the latest transportation glitch for the Kittery and Portsmouth communities. Earlier this year, the lift span of the Sarah Long bridge became stuck, snarling marine traffic.

Coupled with the closure in July 2011 of the nearby Memorial Bridge, residents traveling between the states must traverse the busier Piscataqua River Bridge on Interstate 95, which carries about 112,000 vehicles per day.

At Jackson's True Value Hardware and Marine in Kittery, near the foot of the Sarah Long bridge, Joe Calderara was less than excited about the suddenly barren stretch of four-lane Route 1 bypass that runs in front of the store and crosses the bridge.

Half of the store's customers live in New Hampshire, Calderara estimated.

"It's going to hurt us, but in the long run we'll win the fight," he said.

Customers of Island Marine Service on Route 236 will also likely be affected by the closure, said John Morrell, a technician who was refueling a dinghy at a busy gas station near the bridge.

"For us, it's no biggie, but for the customers it's a different story," said Morrell.

Jeffrey Pelkey, who operates a funeral home close to the damaged bridge, said his customers will have a tougher time reaching his business. 

Pelkey, who also chairs the board of the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce, said the closure illustrates the need for states to better manage infrastructure improvements.

The Sarah Long bridge was at the top of New Hampshire's list of aging bridges that need to be replaced or repaired, according to Boynton, the transportation spokesman.

"It speaks to a bigger picture of proper planning, that both these bridges were in such bad shape," Pelkey said. "It's a tough lesson for us to learn."

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

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