BATH — The Maine Department of Transportation closed the Route 1 viaduct in Bath on Wednesday night to perform work on the aging roadway’s guardrail about a month after an SUV crashed through a section and plummeted to the road below.

There were roughly 15-20 DOT workers on the span during the closure that began at 8 p.m. and was expected to last until midnight. They walked its entire length, checking and tightening bolts by hand on the guardrails on the north and south sides of the bridge with the aid of overhead lights towed by two trucks.

Vehicles were rerouted onto streets that pass under the bridge during the closure and traffic was not adversely affected.

The workers appeared to spend extra time on the section of the guardrail where the SUV crashed through the aluminum railing and plunged 40 feet, landing in the bed of a pickup truck traveling on the road below. The bridge’s temporary closure came less than a week after the Portland Press Herald reported that dozens of guardrail bolts were broken, missing and damaged, and that state officials failed to make any repairs after being warned about the condition of the guardrail in at least one prior inspection of the span.

Maine DOT spokesman Ted Talbot could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and has not returned calls from the Press Herald about the viaduct since last Friday.

Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt and Deputy Commissioner Jonathan Nass did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The Bath viaduct was constructed in 1958, long before the federal government required roadside safety equipment to be crash tested, and is set to be replaced beginning this year at a cost of $15 million. It carries about 18,000 vehicles per day.

Scrutiny of the roadway was prompted by the crash of Melissa Medina, 37, of Windham, who lost control of her 2003 Mercury Mountaineer in icy conditions April 4. A reconstruction of the accident by Bath police found that when Medina’s SUV fishtailed and crossed the center line into oncoming traffic, she over-corrected and struck the bridge railing nearly head-on, flipping upside down and going over the side.

The bed of a passing Ford F-150 absorbed the impact of the falling SUV, likely saving the lives of Medina and her 12-year-old son, who was riding in the front seat. After about a week in the hospital, Medina and her son were released from Maine Medical Center. They sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries, and are expected to recover.

About 50 feet of the bridge railing was destroyed in the accident, and state road crews repaired it the next night.

After the investigation by the Press Herald that found missing or broken nuts and bolts, the state ordered an emergency re-inspection of the viaduct’s guardrail system and 30 other bridges with similar aluminum railings. The state also suggested for the first time that it will consider retrofitting bridges with the outdated bridge guardrails to more modern designs that meet current crash-test standards.

The state’s own detailed inspection of the bridge rail found similar results: 39 bolts were missing or broken, 36 nuts were missing from their bolts, 24 railing posts were damaged, and three segments of horizontal railing were damaged.

After the accident, the DOT said road crews had salted the roadway a short time before Medina’s crash, but a Bath police investigation found that the roadway was unsalted at the time. The state agency never clarified or explained the discrepancy.

Talbot, the DOT spokesman, issued a statement criticizing the newspaper’s reporting and defending the DOT’s work.

“Due to the multiple inaccuracies included in the Bath viaduct story and despite repeated efforts to ensure the reporter was able to comprehend the material given to him, combined with an apparent conflict of interest with a Portland Press Herald advertiser, Maine DOT will no longer be participating in gathering information on this subject,” Talbot said in the April 22 statement. “Maine DOT will continue to provide a safe and reliable transportation system, staffed by highly qualified and dedicated professionals.”

Talbot did not identify the alleged inaccuracies, the material that was misunderstood or the conflict of interest.

Reached Wednesday, Assistant Bridge Maintenance Engineer Ben Foster confirmed that work would be performed, but declined to discuss what would be repaired or why the work was ordered.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report from Bath.

 

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