The idea that a fixed Naples Causeway bridge is a fixed conclusion by the state concerned many of the more than 150 people attending a Wednesday night public hearing at Songo Locks Elementary School.

Maine Department of Transportation officials fielded questions for more than two hours after presenting four options for replacing the current lift bridge on Route 302. Options included a fixed bridge, a new lift bridge, a swing bridge, and rehabilitation of the current bridge, which is 54 years old.

“No final decision has been made. That’s why we’re here tonight,” said Bruce Van Note, Deputy Commissioner of Operations and Budget for the MDOT.

Many of those in attendance expressed concern that the public hearing was for show, and that the state would ultimately do as it pleased. The option of a fixed bridge is unpopular, because with a clearance of 12 feet, the Songo River Queen II and other larger boats would not be able to pass between Long Lake and Brandy Pond.

“I have a feeling that the numbers are stacked for a fixed bridge,” said Ray Turner, a Bridgton resident who has used Naples waterways since 1954.

Van Note, and his colleague Jim Wentworth, who is the project manager for the bridge program, admitted that from the state’s point of view, a fixed bridge makes the most sense, since it is the least expensive and offers the most longevity.

Also, since the state has set aside $11 million for the project, Van Note said the extra $5 million may be used for other projects to update the causeway area, as well as to help fund projects in other Maine communities.

“It’s got to be what is best for the people of Maine in general,” said Wentworth.

The potential for building a new lift bridge has been all but ruled out. Originally, the state estimated it would cost $11 million, but Van Note said that in the “final design phase” they discovered a lift bridge would cost $18 million, an amount that Wentworth has said is too high.

A swing bridge was favored Wednesday night, but at $14.5 million, the MDOT has been tentative about that option as well. Van Note said the collapse of a Minneapolis bridge last August prompted Governor Baldacci to direct the MDOT to review the safety of Maine’s bridges. And as a result of this, as well as a growing international market for construction, money is tight.

But the fate of Naples and abutting communities took priority Wednesday night.

“Are we more concerned about the economic impact to the state department, or to the people in this room? Because that’s what I’m concerned with,” said Tim Hamilton, of Naples.

Next to a swing bridge, rehabilitation of the current bridge seemed most popular during the hearing. But at $8 million, rehabilitation is more expensive than a new fixed bridge, because the electrical and mechanical systems need repair.

However, Van Note said rehabilitation is “certainly not off the table.”

Marina owners and other business owners who work in the causeway area had the opportunity last week, but the effects a fixed bridge would have on businesses that depend on the waterways were hashed out again at the hearing.

“This waterway cannot be changed folks. You’ve got to stand up to these people,” said Dan Allen, a marina owner who stood facing the crowd as he held up for display a steamboat passing through the causeway bridge more than a century ago.

For his impassioned remarks, Allen received a round of applause. But Nathan Allen, who grew up in Naples and lives in Casco, was unmoved.

“Since when do the needs of a few outweigh the needs of many?” said Allen.

Allen said a fixed bridge is the most economic, and would ease heavy congestion on Route 302 in the summer months. He said the travelers on the road waste gas by idling when the bridge opens up.

“Cars aren’t going away. Boats are recreation. People are just going to have to buy smaller boats…I can’t believe the ignorance of some of the people of Naples,” said Allen to a largely opposing crowd.

As the meeting winded down, Van Note and Wentworth thanked the crowd for their input, and said the next step was to consider what they had heard. After the meeting, Van Note said the ultimate decision is in the hands of the Commissioner of Transportation, but that MDOT officials would take input from the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, of which Representative Rich Cebra (R-Naples) is a member.

“We should get the best for the tax dollars we’re spending,” said Cebra. “I want us to build a bridge that keeps the economic activity alive and doesn’t harm the economic activity.”

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