AUGUSTA — All dispatchers had to say were two words: “truck” and “trestle.”

Augusta police Sgt. Christopher Massey knew where right where he was heading, and he knew he would be there for a while.

Despite numerous signs warning drivers of the low clearance, the train trestle on Water Street has taken its own toll on a number of big trucks that have tried to pass underneath. Each accident can entail thousands of dollars in expense and hours of disrupted traffic. No serious injuries have been reported in any recent cases.

So notorious is the bridge for wiping out trucks that city officials have even given it a nickname, as if it were an Old West gunslinger.

“We call it the Can Opener,” City Engineer Lionel Cayer said. “It’s a reoccurring problem for us.”

State law requires signs to warn drivers whenever an underpass clearance is less than 14 feet, 6 inches. Clearance under the Water Street train trestle is 12 feet, 10 inches, according to numerous signs that dot the landscape around the area.

Drivers who fail to notice those signs tend to pay the price.

Massey said police were called to the area 16 times between July 20, 2011, and July 20, 2012, to redirect traffic for drivers who noticed the bridge at the last minute and needed help backing up. Police were called to help another 14 drivers during that same time period only to find the trucks were gone by the time they arrived.

Trains have not crossed the trestle for years, which leads some to wonder why it is not removed to prevent the accidents from happening in the first place. However, the trestle is protected by state law, said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, which owns and maintains it.

“It is something that we have to maintain, as we do with all rail lines,” Talbot said. “We do that with the expectation that the lines will be used in the future.”

Regardless of how many scowls they must endure from inconvenienced motorists, the truck drivers who still can back up are the lucky ones. At least four trucks have hit the bridge during the last year, resulting in damages and big traffic delays.

The most recent of those occurred July 19 when a partially loaded box truck heading south on Water Street hit the trestle with such force that it dislodged the box, trapping the truck underneath. That section of Water Street was closed for about an hour, but one lane was closed for about four hours.

“It took a long time,” Massey said.

He said most of the accidents over the years have occurred during the day, when there are more trucks on the road; and most affect traffic for hours. Police must be on scene throughout the cleanup process, Cayer said.

“It takes a lot of resources from the Police Department that are already scarce,” he said.

A badly damaged truck is just the beginning of the heartache for the driver. Police always issue the driver a summons charging him or her with exceeding the bridge height limit. The fine for the offense $310.

The accident also is reported to the Maine State Police’s Commercial Vehicle Division, which typically sends troopers to examine the truck and the driver’s paperwork. That could lead to another fine, Massey said.

Those fines almost certainly pale in comparison to the fee from the tow truck company, which Massey said could be about $10,000, depending whether the load must be transferred and how tightly wedged the truck is and how much effort it takes to get it free.

“This last one, they actually had to cut the landing gear off the truck so they could get it out,” Massey said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Massey has seen trucks hit the trestle that were able to get out simply by letting air out of the tires.

“Depending on how hard they hit it, where the truck ends up, and how it’s wedged in there, I would dare to say the tow bill can go from a couple thousand dollars to over $10,000,” Massey said.

Cayer, who recently met with city officials to discuss options for reducing accidents, said the remaining options are lowering the street or improving signage.

Water Street underneath the trestle would have to be lowered about 18 inches to gain the necessary clearance, Cayer said. The job would disrupt utilities, most notably the water main, which would have to be insulated because it would lack ground covering to prevent it from freezing in the winter.

Cayer said lowering the street would cost about $150,000.

That hefty price tag has officials eying a high-tech sign to give drivers a better warning. The sign, which would be attached to an electric eye that would scan passing vehicles, would spark a flashing message board to warn truckers whose rigs will not pass under the trestle.

“By that time they’ve already passed the routes where they could easily turn off, but at least we wouldn’t be tied up for several hours,” Cayer said.

Officials hope a flashing sign would be enough to capture drivers’ attention on the busy street, where they already are looking out for pedestrians and other vehicles. Massey said by the time most drivers reach that section of Water Street, they know they are not where they are supposed to be and are looking for signs pointing them back to Interstate 95 or another major route.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of commercial drivers to know the height of their load, Talbot said.

“Nobody likes it,” he said. “It’s an inconvenience to motorists. It’s an inconvenience for businesses. It’s never an ideal situation on either end.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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