Two states with different priorities negotiate the fates of the spans that unite them.
By Deborah McDermott
Ben Porter’s condominium on Badger’s Island in Kittery has a stunning view of the Piscataqua River and, until a year ago, the Memorial Bridge, which had connected the southernmost town in Maine to the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, since 1923. A business management consultant, he and his wife had moved to Kittery in 2005 “specifically because we could walk over the bridge to Portsmouth and enjoy all that the Seacoast provides.”
Intelligent, well-spoken, and feisty by nature, Porter says he was shocked in 2008 when a deal between Maine and New Hampshire to repair the bridge came in over budget, leaving its future in doubt. “I knew it was important to me, but I didn’t know if it was to anyone else. So I put together an online survey and sent it to the ten or twelve people I knew,” he says with a laugh. “And 630 responses later, I had a very clear image of how important the bridge was to people on both sides of the river.”
The survey led to the formation of Save Our Bridges, a coalition of business, municipal, and legislative leaders from both sides of the river with Porter as its spokesperson. After the first meeting, Porter recalls, “I came home and talked to my wife. I said, ‘This is going to take a couple of years. Is it going to be worthwhile to make the investment?’ We decided we’d invested in the Seacoast and the bridge was an essential part of that.”
Save Our Bridges — its focus has been not only the Memorial Bridge but also the aging Sarah Mildred Long Bridge — formed at a pivotal time in the sometimes rocky relationship between the states of Maine and New Hampshire, which co-own both bridges as well as the Piscataqua River Bridge on Interstate 95. The often-intense debate has centered around money: Over the next thirty years, the capital and operational costs for the three bridges could easily top $600 million, perhaps substantially so. “Trying to do it all is not an easy task, especially when you have another state that may have different priorities than you do,” says state Senator Dawn Hill, of York.
The Memorial Bridge, which today is being replaced at a cost of $90 million, first brought those priorities into focus. They continue to be defined as both states grapple with an estimated $170 million replacement of the Long Bridge, which is expected to reach the end of its useful life in 2017. On the horizon in the next decade or so is a $45 million-plus rehabilitation of the Piscataqua River Bridge.
Not long after Save Our Bridges was established, the debate over the Memorial Bridge crystalized: New Hampshire wanted to repair the bridge; Maine did not. “The first words out of Maine’s mouth was, ‘We don’t have the money,’ ” Porter says.
Former Governor John Baldacci agrees that the Memorial Bridge was not at the top of his to-do list. A few years before, the state had spent $80 million building the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. In addition, the state had launched a review of all its bridges in the wake of the 2007 collapse of Minnesota’s I-35W Mississippi River bridge. “We had all these things swirling around,” he says. “I knew it was important to the local community, but in terms of priorities and expenses, I had a lot of other things on my plate.”
By the summer of 2010, the Memorial Bridge had deteriorated so severely that it was beyond saving. Save Our Bridges had spent the past year educating legislators in Augusta about its importance to the community and widening its circle of concerned residents. Business people, particularly those in Kittery, who relied on Portsmouth customers, held information sessions. “The governor is not with us,” Cathy Goodwin, then-president of the Greater York Chamber of Commerce, said at one such gathering. “You need to get out of your comfort zone. You need to know each other, join arms, and fight this.” The turning point came a couple of months later when every gubernatorial candidate came to Kittery and committed to participating in the costs of replacement.
That fall, New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner George Campbell paid Baldacci a visit. “I said the real issue was not the Memorial Bridge per se but the interrelationship of all three,” says Campbell, who once served as Maine’s transportation commissioner. “They serve different but complementary functions. I said, ‘Let’s find a way to put the financing together in a way so these two states don’t have to negotiate with each other on a case-by-case basis.’ ”
The result was the formation of an Interstate Bridge Authority (IBA) that has maintenance jurisdiction over all three bridges. The IBA administers a “sinking fund,” into which each state makes an annual contribution of $1.7 million to pay for the work. “It was a smart way to get the work done and reinforce the connection, which sitting down with George made me see, that the lifeblood of Maine depends on those bridges,” Baldacci says.
The old Memorial Bridge was “floated out” to great fanfare in the early months of 2012, and the new bridge is expected to be completed by July 2013.
Meanwhile, attention has turned to the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge. A Bi-state Bridge Funding Task Force recommended a $119 million rehabilitation, which appealed to cash-strapped Maine but alarmed Piscataqua River maritime officials. The seventy-two-year-old bridge’s center lift span can barely accommodate today’s tankers, which head upriver to New Hampshire terminals. New tankers coming on line in the next several years will be too wide to get through. After listening to those who ply their trade on the river, New Hampshire’s new transportation commissioner, Christopher Clement, made clear that the Long Bridge needed to be replaced — at an estimated cost of $170 million. “It’s mission critical to get the horizontal opening wider,” he said at the time. “It’s going to cost the region millions of dollars if those businesses (at the terminals) close.”
Both state legislatures weighed in during their 2012 sessions. In New Hampshire, lawmakers passed a bill indicating that the state wouldn’t contribute to a rehabilitation project. The Maine Legislature countered, saying New Hampshire should pick up the tab for the additional cost of replacement.
The legislature’s action likely gave Maine the cover it needed to agree to a replacement, as was evidenced only a month later. Bruce A. Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), announced that after “very productive and collaborative” meetings with New Hampshire officials, the case for a new bridge had been made.
Engineering design work for the replacement bridge has begun, but the looming question remains: Where is the money coming from? The Maine Turnpike Authority has agreed to buy a section of Interstate 95 in Kittery for $28 million, but that is just a down payment on a $170 million bridge project.
In November 2012, the Long Bridge “stakeholders committee” of residents and state officials met for the first time to inform the MDOT of area residents’ concerns as the design of the bridge moves forward.
In the audience that day was Ben Porter. As he looked over the group, many of whom were also standing with him during the Memorial Bridge fight, he had to laugh. “Here we go again!” he says.
Deborah McDermott is the Maine bureau chief of the Portsmouth Herald and the longtime editor of the York Weekly.