SKOWHEGAN — It’s no longer a question of whether another bridge over the Kennebec River should be built. The question is now where it should be built, and when.

A nine-member committee created to work with state Department of Transportation officials to study the feasibility of a bridge over the Kennebec at a second location was formalized by town selectmen this week.

The committee, the second such panel since the idea first was raised in 1997, will remain in place until June 30, when a transportation department-sponsored study is expected to get under way.

“We seriously need a bridge,” Skowhegan Road Commissioner Greg Dore, a member of the old and the new Second Bridge Committee, said Wednesday. “I would say the worst time is when school gets out; the school gets out, then New Balance is right after that and then Sappi’s right after that. It’s a real necessity.”

From 2 to 5 p.m., traffic on the Margaret Chase Smith bridges can back up in all directions, as cars and buses from the high school join the 300-plus New Balance shoe factory workers going home. Schools let out at 2:15 p.m. daily. New Balance employees leave work at 3 p.m., police Chief David Bucknam said.

Brent Colbry, superintendent of Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54, said there are 1,482 students combined at the high school, middle school and Bloomfield Elementary School.

The new bridge would span the Kennebec River and connect U.S. Route 201 and U.S. Route 2, where Main Street meets Island Avenue. Plans include the study of possible locations — up to a mile upriver and a mile downriver, on both sides from the existing bridges on Island Avenue, where the fire station is.

The existing bridges are only three lanes wide and carry an estimated traffic count of 19,140 cars and trucks crossing every day, according to 2014 figures.

“The traffic sometimes can be backed up on Madison Avenue up past Hight’s car lot, which causes High Street and Commercial Street to back up,” Dore said. “And on the south side, I’ve seen it backed up past the hospital.”

Members of the original Second Bridge Committee, organized in 1997 to address traffic and truck congestion in the downtown, voted to disband in 2006. The committee was formed initially to find a way to divert truck traffic away from the downtown area and Madison Avenue, to make the downtown more user-friendly.

Teenagers hurry across a busy intersection after waiting for a break in traffic at mid-afternoon Wednesday, when schools and area businesses close for the day, at the southern Margaret Chase Smith bridge in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

In 2005, the transportation department estimated the entire new-bridge project would cost $35 to $40 million, but construction costs have grown since that time.

Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand said in November that the state spent $1.8 million in federal money to study the idea more than 10 years ago, “leaving some to believe that we need to make this project happen.”

Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said “the big hassle” years ago surrounding the idea of a bridge in a second location was an additional proposal for a bypass road, which property owners along the river on U.S. Route 201 and in town objected to because it would have taken parts of their property.

In a nonbinding referendum in March 2004, residents voted 2-to-1 to support construction of another bridge but opposed — in a vote of 854-544 — a connecting route that would bypass the downtown.

The bypass plan is now off the table.

The new committee has the following members: Almand, Dore, Rep. and Skowhegan Selectwoman Betty Austin, Chamber Director Jason Gayne, Sam Hight, Somerset Economic Development Director Christian Savage, Selectman Roger Staples, former Sen. Rodney Whittemore and resident Mark Wilson.

Skowhegan town officials started the ball rolling in November when they met with DOT officials to discuss a game plan.

“Having another bridge in Skowhegan would be beneficial during higher volumes of traffic, but more importantly for resiliency,” Almand said Wednesday. “A major transportation artery is at a standstill when an accident occurs on or between one of the Margaret Chase Smith bridges. Depending on the severity of the incident, emergency vehicles would have to travel to the nearest river crossing 6 to 8 miles away.”

Congested traffic and a School Administrative District 54 school bus wait on the Norridgewock Road as they approach the southern Margaret Chase Smith bridge in Skowhegan at mid-afternoon when schools and area businesses close for the day on Wednesday. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Meghan Russo, manager of legislative and constituent services at the Maine Department of Transportation, said the rebirth of the additional-bridge idea came from appeals last year from then-Sen. Whittemore and Rep. Betty Austin.

“I’ve been part of the initial meetings with the town to discuss even the possibility of a study occurring,” Russo said Wednesday. “My job here at the department is to be the liaison to the Legislature, so that request originally came to me.”

Martin Rooney, the transportation department’s manager of the scoping division at the Bureau of Planning, who had a conference call Wednesday with Almand and Dore and other state officials, said the new three-year state work plan includes funding for the study of the new-bridge idea in Skowhegan.

“We’ve met several times with Skowhegan officials and we collaborated on a scope of work and issued a request for proposals to consultants and currently are in the process of selecting a consultant who will assist both the town of Skowhegan and Maine DOT with the study,” Rooney said.

The study is funded in the transportation department work plan at $350,000. The town of Skowhegan will chip in 10 percent, or about $35,000.

“There’s been a lot of concern,” Rooney said. “We’re aware of incidents where the existing bridge traffic was backed up or there was an accident and a lot of people had a concern. That’s why Maine DOT in partnership with the town of Skowhegan are going to evaluate that through a robust public process.”

Rooney said the public will be invited to weigh in on possible locations of an additional bridge, but it is too early in the process to pinpoint any of those locations. There also will be traffic monitoring. The study is expected to start in May to be completed in 12 to 14 months.

Dore said the new committee has yet to meet or to select a chairperson. Its first meeting date has not been set.

The bridge itself would be financed through state and mostly federal highway funding, with no local money involved, except for project add-ons or upgrades, such as decorative lighting.

“We’re paying a percentage just for the study, but the actual construction of the bridge, we won’t pay anything,” Dore said.

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

 

 

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