In filing a federal lawsuit to prevent any further planning or construction work on a new bridge, the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge argue that the old bridge over the Androscoggin River connecting the village centers of Brunswick and Topsham could be rehabilitated for the same cost over the same extended lifetime of further use. Color me skeptical. What’s more, the Friends believe that considerations of historic preservation should trump all other considerations. Color me dismayed. 

The Friends claim that a rehabilitated old green bridge would cost no more over the next hundred years is based on estimates of their own chosen consultants. But understand that these consultants get the cost down to the estimated $17.5 million by eliminating any construction of an “unnecessary” temporary bridge while the old bridge is being renovated. The Friends see the closure of the old bridge as involving only modest inconvenience (“under seven minutes”) to use the downstream Route 196 Connector Bridge. A temporary bridge would add $4 million to the cost of the project making this option much more expensive even if their consultants are right about the cost of renovation. 

The businesses in the Southern Midcoast Chamber of Commerce strongly favor a new bridge. They recognize that if a new bridge is constructed, the old bridge would remain open for all but a few weeks of the construction of a new one. If the old bridge is rehabilitated, however, it would have to be closed for the entire period of construction – a year or likely two. Whatever the direct costs of construction and maintenance for the bridge, the economic effects on local businesses along Main Street (Topsham) and Maine Street (Brunswick) would be devastating. Surely these should weigh in the decision about whether to build a new bridge. 

In the many hearings concerning the bridge project, cyclists repeatedly urged construction of a new bridge. They know the old bridge is unsafe for cyclists. Also in favor of a new bridge are those who want to assure we have sidewalks on both sides of the bridge (not just one, like the old bridge) to assure pedestrian safety. 

For these reasons, the Topsham Board of Selectmen and the Brunswick Town Council — that is to say, our elected officials – have both strongly endorsed building a new bridge. 

Considerations of safety and economic vitality should factor into the decision about the bridge, but the argument for historic preservation is itself thin. The Friends stress that the old bridge is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and that gives the Friends footing to throw this matter into a federal courtroom by bringing it under the jurisdiction of historic preservation legislation. Eligible. But note that neither town government has actually sought to list the Frank J. Wood Bridge on the National Register, nor has the Maine Department of Transportation. The mills at either end of the bridge were built in the 19th century. In their prime years, it was earlier bridges at the crossing, not this 1932 bridge, that connected them. 

What makes the Frank J. Wood Bridge “eligible?” Not its age (87 years), not its type (Warren through truss), but these two oddities: it is a bit wider than most through truss bridges because it once carried a trolley line, and it includes two different kinds of steel beams. Should this sort of historical particularity be trumps in deciding whether to keep it or to build a new bridge? 

The Friends make two other allegations in seeking to prevent construction of a new bridge. They say that the “adverse visual effects” on the seven buildings in the Summer Street Historical District were not considered – even those these structures were built decades before the current bridge. And they argue there was inadequate consideration of the effect of a new bridge on the “fish passage at the Brunswick Hydroelectric Dam.” They’re reaching: What prevents the passage of fish up the river is, and for years has been, the dam itself, not this or any new bridge. 

It’s not just a federal judge that should determine whether we have a new bridge connecting Brunswick to Topsham. It is not just narrow considerations of historic preservation that should be taken into account. Citizen safety and the vitality of the two towns are at stake, our present and future as well as the past. Moreover, the true costs of the project should matter. Don’t imagine that the Friends speak for all us in taking the matter to court. 

Doug Bennett is a resident of Topsham and a member of Topsham’s Lower Village Development Committee. 

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