Maine Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor stands in front of the Frank J Wood bridge on Tuesday during a press briefing. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

The Maine Department of Transportation has not ruled out closing a bridge connecting downtown Brunswick with Topsham if the structure continues to deteriorate.

Passenger cars are still safe to travel over the Frank J. Wood bridge despite Monday’s announcement that all commercial vehicles are prohibited from crossing, according to Maine Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor.

The Frank J. Wood Bridge, built in 1932, carries traffic on Route 201 between Topsham and Brunswick. An inspection in September showed “severe section loss on the 90-year-old bridge” and on Tuesday, Taylor said that the bridge is experiencing a loss of steel below the deck area on the downstream side.

More so than a total collapse, Taylor said, the primary concern by The Maine Department of Transportation is that the weight of a commercial vehicle could puncture the deck of the bridge and render the structure completely unusable.

“We will make sure the public is safe and if that means having to take more restrictive measures that are more impactful we will do what we have to, up to and including closing the bridge,” said Taylor, adding that if the deterioration progresses “what might be next is running traffic up the center of the bridge one way” or posting the bridge at five tons.

In a media release, the Maine DOT stated that cameras and license plate readers have been installed on the bridge and overweight vehicles should use the Route 1 Bypass. The bridge will continue to be inspected every six months, and someone from Maine DOT will also be checking on it monthly.

Last month, Maine DOT changed the weight limits on the bridge to 20,000 pounds, due to public safety concerns following the state inspection in September.

On Monday, the Brunswick Police Department announced updated restrictions that commercial vehicles with a gross weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more are also prohibited from driving over the bridge. This applies to large trucks, buses and vehicles with more than two axles and vehicles that weigh more than 20,000 pounds are still prohibited.

The restrictions were adjusted to better address enforcement problems, Taylor said, noting that yesterday an 80,000-pound vehicle crossed the bridge and was fined roughly $1,000.

“By posting for commercial vehicles it allows the local police to be able to stop a truck and not have to weigh it,” said Taylor. “Sometimes with these trucks they look like they’re over 10 tons, but you really can’t tell whether they’re full or not, so really out an abundance of caution we’ve decided to just say all the commercial vehicles need to get off the bridge.”

An image from the Maine DOT cameras recording traffic that passes over the Frank J. Wood bridge. Courtesy of Maine DOT

Controversy and Legal Battles

The bridge remains at the center of a legal battle as a local group called Friends of Frank J. Wood Bridge fights for its preservation, citing the historical status of the structure. Locally, the controversy has played out by residents putting up yard signs with messages advocating for either replacement or rehabilitation.

An appeal process through the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston is underway and both parties are awaiting a decision. Maine DOT maintains that building a new bridge would be more cost-effective than upgrading the structure.

According to the Maine DOT, the original estimate to replace the bridge was $13 million, with a total service life cost over 100 years of $17.3 million. The original estimated construction cost of rehabilitating the bridge was $15 million with a service life cost over 75 years of $35.2 million, according to Maine DOT.

“Since estimated construction costs were first calculated, the cost of bridge work has increased dramatically. Over the past 14 months, the price of steel has more than doubled, and raw material costs are going up at the same rate across the board. In addition, there is a labor shortage in the construction industry, putting upward pressure on prices,” Tuesday’s media release stated.

“We understand and respect the passion of the relatively small group that wants to keep the existing 90-year-old bridge, but the reality is this bridge is in poor condition and getting worse,” Taylor stated in the release. “The extended debate and legal challenges have cost all Maine people many years and many millions of dollars. Given the condition of the existing bridge, the reliability and cost-effectiveness of the new bridge, the planned enhancement of pedestrian and bicycle amenities, and the support of local officials, the time has come to move forward as soon as possible.”

Attempts to contact Friends of Frank J. Wood Bridge on Tuesday were unsuccessful. The Times Record previously reported that the group alleged the Federal Highway Administration and Maine Department of Transportation relied on inaccurate information to inflate the projected costs of rehabilitating the existing bridge.

A timeline for when a court decision will be made remains unclear.

An image of the end of a “needle beam” underneath the Frank J Wood bridge included in the September 2021 Maine DOT report. Courtesy of Maine DOT

Maine DOT has designated the Frank J. Wood Bridge as “fracture critical,” which, according to Taylor, means that if one element breaks, redundancy in the structure is compromised and there is a higher possibility of the bridge failing.

“It doesn’t mean that if a beam goes out that it’s going to fall into the water, but there’s always a possibility,” said Taylor.

Statewide, Maine DOT oversees an inventory of 2,460 bridges — 97 or 3.9% of which are designated as fracture critical. Of those 97 fracture critical bridges, 35 are posted for weight. Taylor said that the Frank J. Wood is “pretty near the top of the list” of fracture critical bridges that need to be addressed.

The average daily traffic for the Frank J. Wood Bridge is about 19,000 vehicles, according to Maine DOT.

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