The Maine Turnpike Authority’s plan to close the Stroudwater Street bridge for up to a year has raised the ire of Westbrook residents, but it appears the project is going to go on despite their objections.

The Turnpike Authority held a public meeting last week to discuss the issue. At that meeting, the approximately 45 people who filled a hot room in Westbrook High School hoped to convince members of the Turnpike Authority to reconsider its plan to completely close the 50-year old bridge while it is being replaced, only to hear from Authority representatives that the decision has already been made to close the bridge, and it was unlikely those plans would be changed.

Maine Turnpike Authority Public Affairs Manager Dan Paradee said, after careful consideration, the Authority decided the quickest and most efficient route to complete the project was to close the bridge, rather than trying to keep a part of the bridge open to keep traffic flowing during construction.

“It is the Turnpike’s responsibility to make a judgment about what is in the best and broadest interest,” said Paradee. “And in this case, the Turnpike Authority decided the best way to go about this project was to close this bridge for a 12-month period and let the contractor come in and get the work done.”

The Turnpike Authority has contended if the bridge were to remain open during construction, it would tack on an extra six months to the project, increase the project cost by some $400,000 and cause serious traffic delays both on city roads and the Turnpike, due to periodic lane closures made necessary by the bridge construction taking place over the road. While it will still be necessary to close Turnpike lanes during construction, Authority officials said the current project would cut the number of closures roughly in half.

“We’ve done a lot of work, and we feel quite confident closing the bridge is the best way to go here,” said Paradee.

In coming up with plans for the project, Paradee said the Authority also consulted with local emergency service providers to check whether Stroudwater Street is used as a route to Maine Medical Center.

Westbrook Fire Chief Gary Littlefield said rescue crews do sometimes use Stroudwater Street as a route to Portland, though Brighton Avenue is the primary route. He said while construction was going on, rescue crews would use Brighton Avenue to get to Portland, even if the bridge were to be partially open to traffic.

Littlefield said rescue crews would not risk traveling on a bridge under construction because of the possibility of delays caused getting through the construction site. “We would avoid a one-way bridge,” Littlefield said.

John Searles, who owns Town and Country Motors on Stroudwater Street in Westbrook, said he believed the Authority made the decision to close the bridge solely so it could save money on the project.

“I really think why you want to close the bridge is because you want to save money,” said Searles. “I don’t think that this is fair, and you’re going full steam ahead.”

“The cost of the project is always a factor,” Paradee responded. “Cost is always a factor. It has to be. But there are many, many other factors that are real factors and when you put them all together, we believe it makes the case for closing the bridge.”

Searles said the closing would also affect commuters from communities from west of Westbrook who use that bridge as part of their daily commute to work. “I think you’re making mistakes and it’s at our expense,” said Searles. “I think the way that you’re going to do it with the closing (of the bridge) is going to put a greater burden on our community.”

Dr. Bill Chadwick, pastor of the Stroudwater Christian Church in Portland, also spoke against the project. Chadwick said the closing of the bridge, which is very near the church, would have a “devastating” effect on the church. Chadwick said closing the bridge would prevent people from easily accessing the church’s services and its various programs, such as a counseling service and a day care center.

“You will directly affect our mission, our scope and the ministry of the Stroudwater Christian Church,” Chadwick said. “It would take years for our church to recover from the closing of this street.”

City Councilor and Stroudwater Street resident Drew Gattine said the closure of the bridge would add to an already growing traffic burden in Westbrook. “This city already has a tremendous traffic problem,” he said. “All of the major arteries are choked. People are trying to take every advantage they can to get places quicker.”

While he was not at the meeting, City Council President Jim Violette has also been outspoken against the project. Violette has taken issue with the Turnpike Authority’s statements that it spoke to city officials about the project in December. “The Turnpike Authority never discussed this issue with me or any members of the council,” Violette said.

Violette said the council did not know the Authority planned to close the bridge until shortly before a June meeting of the council’s Highways Committee, where the plan was publicly presented.

Both Police Chief Paul McCarthy and City Administrator Jerre Bryant confirmed that the Turnpike Authority did discuss the project in December, but both men said at that time, it did not appear that the Authority had finalized its plans to close the bridge.

“My recollection of that meeting was they put closure on the table, but it was pretty clear they had plans to seek community input,” said McCarthy.

Bryant also said the Authority had discussed the possibility of closure when they discussed the project with city staff in December, but it was presented only as one of a series of options being considered.

Bryant said he urged Turnpike officials to discuss the project with the City Council and the public at an open meeting. He said while Authority officials agreed to make a public presentation, they told city staff that the final decision would be made by the Authority. “They made it clear it was not our decision,” Bryant said.

Once they learned the bridge was to be closed, the council’s Highway’s Committee voted, 4-0, to instruct the administration to do whatever was possible to work with the Turnpike Authority to seek an alternative to closing the bridge. Bryant said City Attorney Bill Dale is looking into the city’s legal options, but he wasn’t sure what recourse, if any, the city would have to stop the closure.

While it appears the Authority is unlikely to change its mind regarding the closure of the Stroudwater Street bridge, Paradee said the public is welcome to attend a meeting of the Maine Turnpike Authority’s board of directors where the project will be discussed.

The meeting will be held next Thursday, July 28, at 9 a.m. at the Turnpike Authority’s headquarters located at 430 Riverside St. in Portland. For more information, call the Turnpike Authority at 871-7771.

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