The new Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, seen from the Kittery side on Feb. 8, is ready to open to traffic this month, say Maine transportation officials. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

After six months of delays, the state of Maine has ordered the Pittsfield construction company Cianbro to open the new Sarah Mildred Long Bridge to traffic within the next two weeks.

Maine’s chief engineer, Joyce Taylor, took the unusual step Tuesday, sending a letter to Cianbro CEO Andi Vigue that directed the contractor of the nearly $165 million project to open the bridge connecting Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, by March 23.

Maine officials insist that the bridge carrying trains on its lower level and vehicles on its upper level is safe and ready to use, but say Cianbro wants to delay opening it to vehicles until May to complete all aspects of the project.

“It is obvious that Cianbro and Maine DOT do not see eye to eye on several substantive issues,” Taylor wrote. “However, at this point, what we do agree on is that we both must honor our commitment to act in the public’s best interest. At the forefront of this collective commitment should be getting the vehicular traffic portion of the bridge open to the public as soon as possible.”

It is uncommon, but not unprecedented, for the state to give a contractor an ultimatum, said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.

“The process is such that we have a high confidence that the bridge will be open by month’s end,” he said.

The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge will replace a span that was closed in August 2016 after the lift span got stuck in the open position. The bridge was demolished two months later. The 15,000 vehicles that typically used the bridge on a daily basis have been detoured onto Interstate 95 since it closed.

The $164.8 million lift-span bridge across the Piscataqua River was scheduled to open Sept. 1, 2017, but that date has been pushed back repeatedly. In February, Cianbro said it would not be able to open the bridge to traffic until May 10 while it finished construction. The transportation department has said that the work that needs to be completed can be done after the bridge is open.

A clause in the contract says Cianbro can be fined $1,000 per day from the time the September deadline passed, but there has been no discussion of penalties, said Jeff Folsom, project manager for the Maine Department of Transportation.

“Honestly, we have been focused 100 percent on trying to get the bridge open,” he said. “In fairness to them, we are not going to place blame today, we are going to objectively look at it when it is done.”

As of early February, Cianbro had been paid almost $160 million of its $163.7 million contract.

Last month, Maine officials expressed frustration with Cianbro’s schedule and said the delays were unexpected. At the time, they said the department was looking at all options to open the bridge earlier.

Cianbro spokesman Alan Grover declined to answer questions about the project on Friday and referred inquiries to Talbot.

The direction to get the bridge ready by the end of the month has been received positively, Talbot said.

“We are really working well with the contractor, we have this common goal,” he said.

Folsom, the project manager, said the bridge has been commissioned and the staff has been trained to raise and lower the center span.

Outstanding construction needs are “punch list” items that can be done while the bridge is open by closing a travel lane or other traffic management measures, he said.

“Typically when a bridge opens, it is not 100 percent complete, usually there is some work still to be done,” Folsom said.

The department also is monitoring some cables on the lift span that do not correctly fit their spools, a condition called “wavy ropes.”

The malfunction is not a safety concern, but likely will wear out the cables faster than their 25-year lifespan, Folsom said. The department is trying to understand what created the problem, he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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