AUGUSTA — Prompted by the Water Street “Can Opener” train trestle’s latest metal-shredding encounter with a tractor-trailer, city officials are looking into what could be done with the currently unused stoutly-built 1914 bridge that a state Department of Transportation official indicated isn’t likely to be removed.

Told recently by the director of freight and passenger services for the state the trestle will likely remain in place as part of the state’s obligation to maintain the rail corridor it is part of, some city councilors want to make the best of it. Councilors have discussed using it to access the adjacent railroad bridge and convert it into a pedestrian-and-bike crossing they said could provide a recreational spot with sweeping views over the Kennebec River.

“I think we should be open to, obviously within what we could afford, to any good use of it,” said At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander, who compared the idea to the Skyline, a landscaped walking path built on former elevated railroad lines in New York City that she said draws 8 million visitors a year. “Because right now it’s not of any use to us, except to hurt commerce down there. Hopefully we could make it into something better.”

A pedestrian-and-bike access across the river on the old railroad bridge, which is wide enough to accommodate two sets of tracks, was one of several recommendations of the city’s Eastside Planning Committee in 2011.

At-Large Councilor Darek Grant, who served as chairman of that committee, said creating a pedestrian river crossing was also included as a goal in the city’s most recent Comprehensive Plan, to serve as an attraction to downtown and both sides of the Kennebec River.

Trees can be seen growing through tracks Sept. 15 on the railroad bridge over Water Street in downtown Augusta. Trucks sometimes get stuck under the low clearance bridge and that has earned it the nickname the “Can Opener.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

City Manager William Bridgeo said one challenge with that idea could be the eastside landing spot of the bridge. The city owns the Kennebec Locke property on the eastside, the site of the former Statler paper mill, but a railroad company owns the several feet of land immediately surrounding where the railroad bridge connects to the east side.


Nathan Moulton, director of freight and passenger services for the state transportation department, recently told city councilors the state bought the rail corridor running between Augusta and Brunswick, known as the Lower Road, using federal railroad preservation funds. Due to that funding source, he said, the state is required to manage the corridor’s right-of-way for future rail use. Moulton also said the land was acquired parcel by parcel and some of those deals could restrict its use to a rail line.

He also said the state views its obligation to continue to manage the rail corridor as is, including keeping the train trestle in place, even though it hasn’t been used in years. He said it could fairly easily, at a cost as low as $100,000, be prepared to resume use as a railroad bridge.

“If we’re going to straight-face this and say it’s for rail purposes, we’d keep that bridge in place,” Moulton told councilors at a Sept. 10 council meeting. “I’d never tell anybody something is off the table. You certainly could pursue it. But… the statute tells us to manage this corridor. My interpretation of that is that bridge would need to stay in place.”

He also said advocates for the return of passenger rail to the area would strongly object to the trestle being removed. Rail advocates have also spoken against a proposal to use the rail corridor from Augusta to Brunswick to connect the existing Kennebec River Rail Trail to the proposed Merrymeeting Trail.

Moulton said any new uses of the corridor, including the bridge, would need to be considered interim and have to be constructed in ways that would allow its reuse by trains if rail service were to ever return. He said the Kennebec River Rail Trail, which runs alongside the tracks, is considered an interim use.

DOT officials would be open to considering proposals to use the trestle for pedestrian access to the bridge as an interim use, Moulton said.


KDT Towing employees work to remove the tractor trailer that struck and got stuck under the railroad trestle on Water Street in downtown Augusta in this Feb. 14, 2012 file photo. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

City councilors inquired about other ways to address the problem of trucks striking the bridge, all of which Moulton doubted would be feasible.

One suggestion was to raise the trestle, which Mouton said couldn’t really be done because train tracks rarely climb steep grades. Lowering the roadway, another suggestion, Moulton said could cause structural problems for the trestle; Bridgeo said that option would be challenging because underground utility infrastructure isn’t buried deeply.

Moulton said DOT officials would likely decline having artists paint the trestle to make it more visible to drivers, because it could create a distraction and make it more — not less — likely truck drivers might drive under the bridge.

When too-tall trucks try to go under the 12-foot, 9-inch structure it often results in destruction to the tractor trailers.

Augusta police officers wait for a tow truck to arrive and remove a tractor trailer that struck and got stuck under the railroad trestle on Water Street in downtown Augusta, in this February 2014 file photo. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Since 2017, 10 such crashes have occurred that required the road to be shut down so vehicles stuck under the trestle could be removed.

Augusta Police Lt. Chris Massey said, since January 2017, police have received 50 calls for service to stop traffic to help trucks turn around there.


“A lot of the drivers complain that their GPS route takes them down on Water Street,” Massey said.

An active warning system was proposed for the trestle near the intersection of Water and Bond streets in 2017, but a Maine Department of Transportation spokesperson confirmed earlier this year that it was never constructed because the bids came in too high and the department decided not to move forward with the project.

There are warning signs on both approaches, and on the bridge itself, but drivers of trucks taller than 12 feet, 9 inches still apparently miss those signs and try to drive under. Sometimes they hit it or, sometimes they strike the trestle but keep going, which in some cases has peeled the tops off of trailers like a sardine can lid, giving the trestle its informal local name, “Can Opener.”

The old railroad bridge spanning the Kennebec River in downtown Augusta shows signs of disrepair, as seen Tuesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Mayor David Rollins said the next step is likely for the city to come up with a vision for what it wants to do with the bridge. He said it is an eyesore that seems to serve as a dividing line between the southern and middle end of Water Street where redevelopment is taking place, and the northern end where blight remains.

“It’s an obsolete, iron-clad 20th century relic that kind of is the line of demarcation,” Rollins said. “Once you go under that bridge it’s like a haunted house. We’re very actively involved in trying to revitalize Water Street and that seems like a barrier there and an awful lot to have to take on to have it sit there as a scar across the street, and as a barrier to truck traffic, and to sightlines.”

Moulton noted Augusta’s bridge is in a different situation than a railroad trestle removed from Route 24 in the town of Richmond in 2017, which serves the same rail corridor. He noted the Richmond bridge was damaged, while the Augusta bridge — despite its age and rusty appearance — is in good condition despite its numerous encounters with tractor trailers over the years.

“When trucks hit the bridge, the bridge always wins,” said Moulton, adding a 2019 inspection found only one-16th of an inch depth of corrosion on its girders. “It’s very rugged, the railroads really overbuilt these bridges back in the day.”

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