DRESDEN — Some area residents fear the proposed new Richmond-Dresden bridge will be an unsightly monstrosity.

They urged state officials to scrap their plans to replace the 80-year-old, low-slung swing bridge there now with a bridge tall enough to accommodate passing watercraft.

Department of Transportation officials told about 100 people at a Wednesday night public hearing in Dresden that the final design and height of the bridge haven’t been set. But officials have decided that the bridge will not be a low structure requiring a moving section so watercraft can pass below the bridge on the Kennebec River.

Residents voiced concerns that the bottom of the proposed new bridge could be more than 80 feet above the river, requiring major grade changes on both sides of the river to get the road on both sides high enough.

Some feared such a tall structure, in such a prominent spot, could be a looming, unsightly presence on the river.

“It sounds like a foregone conclusion we’re going to have this monstrosity,” said Dresden resident Mark Kenney. “My opinion is this is absolutely going to change the character of this region.”

The existing bridge is only about 12 feet above the river, according to a state application for $10.8 million in federal-grant funding to help replace it. The top of the current bridge, officials said, is about 50 feet tall.

The bridge is expected to cost about $25 million. Work on the new bridge, likely to be built just upriver of the current bridge, could start in 2013 and be complete in 2015.

In 2007, state officials estimated it would cost $22 million to build a fixed bridge tall enough to accommodate river traffic below. At the time they projected repairing the existing bridge would cost an estimated $25 million. And building a modern, low-level swing-span bridge would cost nearly $31 million.

Wayne Frankhauser, assistant program manager for the transportation department’s bridge program, said moveable bridges such as the existing swing bridge between Richmond and Dresden are more expensive both to build and maintain.

“Moveable bridges have a very high cost to build and cost more to maintain, throughout their life,” he said. “We looked at the numbers and it came out that would be a lot more expensive. We don’t have good luck with moveable bridges. Because of that our first option, across the state, is to not build moveable bridges.”

Frankhauser said transportation officials are in talks with the Coast Guard to determine how tall the bottom of the new bridge should be. The Coast Guard annually sends ice-breaking cutters up the river to help break up the ice in an effort to prevent spring flooding.

One of the vessels sometimes involved in those efforts, the 140-foot-long Thunder Bay, is believed to need at least 75 feet of clearance to be able to go under the bridge and upriver as far as Gardiner, officials said.

Nate Benoit, project manager with the transportation department’s bridge program, told residents that officials intend to make the bridge as low as possible while still accommodating the Coast Guard’s need to get watercraft underneath to break up the ice.

David Venner, of Richmond, said he’s not concerned as to whether the bridge would be low and moveable, or high and fixed.

“I pay federal and state taxes and I just want something cheap and functional,” Venner said.

But Richmond resident Lloyd Ferris said cheap and functional isn’t always best. He said a high, unsightly bridge could detract from the attractive appearance of other structures in the area.

Benoit said even high-level bridges can be designed as attractive as possible.

Frankhauser, responding to residents’ concerns that information on the bridge project has been vague so far, said the design of the bridge was only in the preliminary stages. Transportation officials will return to the area for a public hearing in March with more detailed information, he said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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