TOPSHAM — A group trying to save the Frank J. Wood Bridge said it will appeal a federal court ruling that backed the Maine Department of Transportation’s bid to replace the span linking Topsham and Brunswick.

A Maine transportation department spokesperson confirmed Monday that an appeal could further delay the estimated $21.8 million bridge replacement.

In an effort to save the 89-year-old truss bridge, Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Historic Bridge Foundation sued in September 2019.

The plaintiffs alleged the Federal Highway Administration and Maine Department of Transportation relied on inaccurate information to artificially inflate the projected costs of rehabilitating the existing bridge that MDOT has categorized as structurally deficient.

MDOT maintains that building a new bridge would be more cost-effective than rehabilitating the current structure, which carries Route 201 and Route 24 traffic over the Androscoggin River.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker’s ruling was filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Feb. 3. In his decision, Walker notes that, despite his ruling, he was skeptical about some individual cost components MDOT cited.

For example, Walker writes that MDOT was “careful to discount cost estimates when it comes to its preferred project alternative,” to address the bridge, which is the construction of a new bridge upriver from the existing bridge.

While stating there may be “exaggeration” in a couple of cost estimates, Walker doesn’t believe it changes the overall finding that a new bridge is less expensive to maintain in the long run.

“In short, there is nothing at all irrational about the agencies’ decision to look at the Frank J. Wood Bridge Project the way they did, let alone anything on the order of caprice that would warrant my rejection of the agencies’ refusal to commit to inordinate future spending necessary to keep the Frank J. Wood Bridge in service,” said Walker in a 40-page ruling.

“We are pleased with the court’s favorable ruling regarding the replacement of the Frank J. Wood Bridge,” said Paul Merrill, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, in a statement.

The decision is “another chapter in more than four and a half years of combined federal process and lawsuit proceedings,” Merrill added.

“I’m delighted with the decision,” said Doug Bennett of Topsham, who served on the design advisory committee that worked with MDOT on the bridge design. “I think we need a new bridge and we need it as soon as possible and the lawsuit was getting in the way of getting along with the building of a new bridge.”

Bennett said it is a bridge that will connect people in one densely settled commercial area to another in Brunswick and Topsham. He said a new bridge wouldn’t disrupt the economic health of either town because it doesn’t require a temporary bridge or detour.

John Graham of Topsham, a spokesperson for the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, said Friday that the group is disappointed with the decision and will file an appeal shortly. He believes the appeal will be filed in federal court in Boston.

“We appreciate Judge Walker’s numerous statements acknowledging that MDOT had exaggerated the costs of rehabilitating the bridge and understated the cost of building a new bridge, but disagree with his overall conclusion,” Graham said in a statement.

Graham said the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge strongly believe rehabilitation will “substantially cost less.”

For example, the ruling notes that the MDOT has determined a rehabilitated bridge should be painted every 20 years and estimated each painting to cost $4 million. The plaintiffs argue that is excessive given DOT accepted in 2016 a $2.7 million low bid for a similar bridge project.

The crux of the matter, Graham said, is that MDOT wants to do any rehabilitation project right, “and they want to apply a Cadillac, top-of-the-line maintenance program to it over the next 75 years when over the last 75  years, they haven’t done anything but mess it up.”

The state estimated it would cost $15 million to $17 million to renovate the bridge, with service-life costs exceeding $35 million. Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge had proposed leaving the structure as is and reinforcing it with steel.

In  2020, $19.8 million was budgeted for the bridge replacement in MDOT’s three-year work plan. Merrill said in July 2020 there are many factors that have driven up the cost of the project, included an extended review process. The project was initially slated to start in 2019.

Currently, the total estimated bridge replacement cost is $21.8 million for engineering and construction, according to Merrill. The department still plans to advertise for bids in July so construction could begin late this fall. However, “future legal action could lead to continued delays and continued price increases.”

Merrill said he can’t put a dollar amount to how much the state has spent on the lawsuit so far, in part because the state has its own attorneys on staff to handle the case.


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