Woolwich selectmen are taking their concerns about the Station 46 Bridge Replacement Project to the press. Wiscasset Newspaper was invited to meet with two of the five selectboard members and the road commissioner Jan. 8 outside the town office.
“We’ve been told by Maine Department of Transportation officials the project will cost roughly $30 million, nearly all of it to be paid for with federal monies. We’re asking them to provide the town with $300,000 so we can make improvements on the Nequasset and George Wright roads, which are town-owned that MDOT wants to use during the construction.” Selectman Jason Shaw said. “Our discussions have been ongoing now for two years, the project is beginning to ramp up, and we still don’t know where we stand with them.”
MDOT Spokesman Paul Merrill said Tuesday, the bridge replacement project “is not diverting any Route 1 traffic onto local roads.”
Shaw said MDOT officials called off a meeting with the board and road commissioner planned for Jan. 12 at the town office. “I received a telephone call from the Station 46 project manager late this past Friday the meeting was off. He told me that our attorney would have to meet with their attorney in an attempt to resolve the situation. It’s really sad that it’s come to this. Very disappointing.”
Selectboard Chairman David King Sr. called it “exasperating” and without precedent. “In the past, we’ve always had a good relationship with them. They’re planning to divert large amounts of traffic over our roads during construction of the new bridge and that’s a serious concern for us and the road commissioner,” he explained standing outdoors with Shaw by the town’s historic meetinghouse at the intersection of Nequasset and George Wright roads.
“You can see by the ruts in the road shoulder it’s a sharp turn for motorists coming from either direction of George Wright Road. The pavement runs uphill all the way to the town office and fire station,” King continued, pointing towards the municipal building. “When MDOT’s traffic engineers came down here last spring at our invitation, we showed them this corner and pointed out the problem with the road’s elevation. We felt there were some safety concerns about increasing traffic here. Initially, they agreed with us and promised to provide the town with $90,000 to widen this corner and address the elevation. Now they’re backing off.”
King called it frustrating not being able to work out a compromise. “They know this road is one of the busiest in town. The municipal building, fire station and old meetinghouse are located here. That’s partly why the blinking caution light was placed down the street at the Route 1 intersection. The road isn’t that wide to begin with, and there’s times during meetings, or when voting is taking place when cars are parked along both sides of it. Our first responders have expressed their concerns about getting fire trucks and ambulances safely in and out of the station.”
During an initial public information meeting on the project in November 2019, MDOT officials promised to keep Route 1 traffic moving during most of the bridge construction. They warned however, at times motorists would be diverted around the project area to Route 127, a state road that links up with Route 1 just past Cumberland Farms. They’ve since said a temporary traffic signal will replace the blinking caution light at the Route 1/Nequasset Road intersection. The signal will regulate traffic including school buses traveling back and forth to the elementary school on the west side of Nequasset Road. Traffic turning lanes are eventually planned here as well.
Road Commissioner Jack Shaw has reservations about the planned traffic signal. “Honestly, I think it’s a bad idea if they don’t also drop the Route 1 speed limit. As it is now, it’s 55 miles per hour. For me this is cause for concern.” Shaw added he’s worried too about wear and tear the extra traffic will cause to town-owned roads as motorists seek their own route to avoid construction delays. “The Old Stage Road and other back roads weren’t built to handle heavy volumes of traffic. It’ll likely be the town that’s stuck with the cost of repairing them.”
The board also wants MDOT to reconsider plans for closing off the south end of George Wright Road, which intersects with Route 1 on the north side of the bridge. “If they permanently close it, we need to know whether they’ll allow us to construct a new entry point about a quarter-mile north of the current intersection,” said King. Thirteen months ago the town spent $69,000 to buy two acres of land and sought the state’s help in building a connector road between George Wright Road and Route 1. The connector road requires approval from both MDOT and the townspeople but for now is on hold. “If they eventually close the south end of George Wright Road then we want them to pay for constructing a turnaround area there,” said King.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” added Selectman Shaw. “They tell us they want our input in the bridge replacement project; we provide it, and then it’s like they haven’t listened to a thing we’ve said.”
Wiscasset Newspaper asked Merrill for comment via email on the Jan. 12 meeting’s cancellation, and if MDOT plans another public informational meeting on the project. Merrill responded: "MaineDOT project staff is still planning to meet with town officials as soon as practicable. Early last week, we learned the town was involving outside legal counsel," Merrill wrote. "Based on that change, we postponed our Jan. 12 meeting until our attorney can meet with the town’s attorney. We plan to reschedule our project staff meeting with town officials after the attorneys have their preliminary meeting.
"Even though the town has yet to present MaineDOT with a clear request for traffic changes on this project, the department is open to making changes. Any agreed-upon work will be completed by the department and/or its contractor, and the cost will be covered by the department," Merrill wrote.
The selectboard is mulling its next move. “My initial recommendation will be that we don’t sign off on the paperwork allowing MDOT the use of our roads during the project,” said King. The week of Jan. 10 the full board will meet to discuss its options with attorney Kristin Collins. “We may explore the possibility of filing an injunction against closing off the George Wright Road/Route 1 intersection. This is far from over,” added King.
In November 2019, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, announced MDOT would receive $44.6 million from the federal BUILD program, of which $25 million would go towards the estimated $30 million to replace the Station 46 Bridge. In a press release Collins referred to the two-lane bridge just north of Taste of Maine Restaurant as providing a “critical link” between the Bath Iron Works shipyard and points north.
According to MDOT an average of 19,000 motorists a day use the bridge that was built in 1933 to span Maine Central Railroad and a saltwater marsh created by the Sasanoa River. The bridge was found structurally deficient in its last inspection with large areas of rust damage to its underdecking and steel support structure. Rather than refurbish the bridge, MDOT project engineers opted to replace it. The project is in the initial stage of getting underway and expected to take about 24 months to complete. The speed limit across the current bridge is 35 mph but increases to 55 mph in the northbound lane.