Historic preservation groups want the state to renovate the 87-year-old Frank J. Wood Bridge between Brunswick and Topsham, seen here in 2016. The state contends that would be far more expensive than replacing it with a new structure. (File photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)

Three preservation groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the Maine Department of Transportation from tearing down a historic two-lane bridge that connects the towns of Brunswick and Topsham and replacing it with a new structure. 

In the suit filed Friday, the plaintiffs ask the U.S. District Court to grant an injunction that would prevent any further planning, acquisition of rights of way, financing or construction of a replacement bridge over the Androscoggin River. The suit was filed by the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States, and the Historic Bridge Foundation. 

Elaine Chao, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Bruce Van Note, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, are among the defendants named in the suit. A notice published in the Federal Register earlier this year said that any legal action seeking judicial review of the decision to replace the Frank Wood bridge had to be filed by Sept. 9. 

The plaintiffs contend in the lawsuit that it would be more feasible to renovate the bridge, which has been deemed eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The plaintiffs also allege that tearing down the bridge and replacing it would violate the National Environmental Protection Act because the state has failed to evaluate the project’s impact on the fish passage at the Brunswick Hydroelectric Dam. 

“The defendants finding that the bridge project would have no significant impact on the environment and that no environmental impact statement is required was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and otherwise not in accordance with law,” the suit says. 

The suit asks the court to halt construction of a new bridge until defendants have complied with the NEPA. 

Last year, the MDOT decided that building a new bridge would be more cost-effective than upgrading the 87-year-old structure. 

According to MDOT estimates, it would cost about $13 million to build a new bridge, and an additional $17.3 million to maintain it over its projected lifespan of 100 years. Travel lanes would remain 11 feet wide, but 5-foot shoulders and 5-foot sidewalks would be incorporated into the bridge design. 

The state estimated it would cost $15 million to $17 million to renovate the bridge, with service-life costs exceeding $35 million. Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge had proposed leaving the structure as is and reinforcing it with steel. 

“Defendants’ decision was based on inaccurate and inconsistent data regarding the relative costs of the bridge rehabilitation versus building a new replacement bridge, which vastly overestimates the long term costs associated with maintaining the rehabilitated bridge,” the plaintiffs argue in their court complaint. “This inaccurate and inconsistent data improperly taints the consideration of alternatives that would avoid or minimize harm to the historic Frank J. Wood Bridge.” 

The complaint also says that members of the Friends group “have for years used, enjoyed, and appreciated the historic Frank J. Wood Bridge, and intend to continue to do so, including studying and appreciating its history and architecture. Their interests in preserving and protecting this historic bridge will be harmed by the proposed action.” 

In a statement issued Monday to News Center Maine, MDOT spokesman Paul Merrill said state engineers deny the allegations made in the complaint. 

“The decision was reached for this project after a fact-based and thoughtful, two and a half year long engineering and environmental assessment overseen by the Federal Highway Administration,” Merrill said. “MDOT’s job is to ensure public safety and be responsible with public funding; our conclusion on this project achieves both.” 

Merrill told News Center Maine that the bridge is scheduled to go out to bid in August 2020, with construction starting as early as winter 2021. The project will take more than two years to complete, but Merrill said the suit could cause delays. 

“This iconic historic bridge is a beloved landmark,” Paul Edmondson, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a statement given to News Center Maine. “Fortunately, the law requires that transportation projects should not destroy historic properties if a feasible and prudent alternative exists.” 

The Frank J. Wood Bridge was built in 1932. It is an 805-foot-long, three-span steel truss bridge supported by concrete abutments and two concrete piers. The rust-scarred green bridge carries an average of 19,000 vehicles a day and offers pedestrians a sidewalk on its western side, which faces upriver toward the Brunswick Hydroelectric Dam. 

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