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Maine Bridge Speeds to the Sky

October 09, 2005|Glenn Adams | Associated Press Writer

VERONA ISLAND, Maine — When it opened to traffic in 1931, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge that arches gracefully over Maine's Penobscot River was hailed as the world's most beautiful steel bridge built for less than $1 million.

Now reaching the end of its useful life, the green two-lane suspension bridge that has been familiar to generations of tourists who motored along coastal U.S. Route 1 is being replaced by a new span, which has a few unique qualities itself.

The $84-million stillunnamed replacement will be the only bridge in the United States that will have a public observatory at the top of a supporting tower. The only other bridge with that feature is in Taiwan.

Maine's first cable-stay style bridge is also rising with unusual speed, in contrast to other major projects -- Boston's Big Dig is an example -- that are plagued by cost overruns, delays and lawsuits. The Maine project, which came together with state and federal funds, could see its first car cross within 3 1/2 years of the decision to build.

"Normally a bridge of this scope would take a decade," said Carol Morris, the Maine Department of Transportation's project spokeswoman.

Another detail sets the new bridge apart: It may become the only span anywhere with supporting pylons that resemble the Washington Monument. At 440 feet, the towers will be 115 feet shorter than the famous obelisk.

The attention to the bridge's design is tied to the warm sentiments residents have developed over the years for a fixture of the local skyline, said Morris, who calls the older bridge "very much a part of the community."

Albert Richard, 92, worked on the Waldo-Hancock Bridge as an 18-year-old but is philosophical about plans to demolish it. "It probably had its use," said Richard, who lives in an assistedliving center across the Canadian border in Cape-Pele, New Brunswick. "Life has to go on."

A rough gray granite exterior coat is being applied to the bridge towers as they rise from the banks of the Penobscot. The color ties into the historic look of Ft. Knox, the granite stronghold built in the mid-1800s to guard a bluff overlooking the river. A road for cars and pedestrians connects Ft. Knox to the new bridge's west tower.

Granite from Maine's Mt. Waldo, which was used to build Ft. Knox, also is found in the interior of the Washington Monument. This link helped inspire the monument-like design of the bridge towers, which will also house the 420-foot-high observation deck accessible by elevator.

From 240 feet up as the east tower was being built, the deck showcased the rounded mountaintops of Acadia National Park in the distance. From another angle, Penobscot Bay glistened under the sun. Upriver, there was a bustle of activity in Bucksport, a town dating to the late 1700s, and Ft. Knox lorded over the river's narrows.

Not everyone is happy with the project's results.

Lloyd Bridges, a selectman for the town of 543, said Verona Island residents who wanted a new suspension cable bridge like the old one were ignored. "In my opinion, they knew what they were going to do when they started," said Bridges, adding that "it's going to take a long time" to get used to the replacement.

Bridges and others also question why 281,000 tons of granite had to be blasted from a hillside near the bridge's western approach, saying the gouged-out site has created an eyesore.

Builders say the ledge was removed so Route 1 can make a more gradual, rounder turn onto the new span, rather than the sharp turn drivers have had to make onto and off the Waldo-Hancock Bridge.

Corroded suspension cables were discovered on the old bridge in 2003, prompting the state to detour heavier trucks 40 miles to other routes. Almost immediately, Maine set its sights on building a span to replace the Waldo-Hancock, which will eventually be dismantled.

The new bridge has yet to take its final form, but when the 16-inch-diameter supporting cables are finally strung in place it will have a profile of other cable-stay spans, notable for their straighter lines and sharper angles than traditional designs. Other eastern bridges utilizing the design include the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston and Sunshine Skyway in Florida.

"It's the most economical [design] in the 1,000- to 2,000-foot range," said the lead engineer for the Maine project, Christopher Burgess of the Denver-based Figg Bridge Engineers Inc.

Altogether, 721 million pounds of rebar will strengthen the structure.

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