MADAWASKA and FORT KENT – Other than the possibility of a few extra stops for gas while passing through, Town Manager Christine Therrien doesn’t expect the 40 or so trucks diverted daily to Madawaska by the new three-ton weight restriction at the Fort Kent / Clair International Bridge to have any significant impact on Madawaska’s traffic or commerce, she said Thursday.
The Maine Department of Transportation recently decided to post the restriction beginning Jan. 5.
Fort Kent Town Manager Don Guimond, however, has concerns on how the new posting will affect trucking companies and businesses from Fort Kent to Allagash and the surrounding area, who use the international bridge every day.
“It’s a sad statement that it has come to this,” Guimond said Thursday morning, Dec. 30. “This bridge should have been replaced a long time ago, and everyone knows it should have been replaced a long time ago.”
John Buxton, bridge maintenance engineer with MDOT, said that after a combined MDOT and New Brunswick Department of Transportation inspection of the bridge on Dec. 14, the decision was made by both the state and the province last week to halt all traffic over 3 tons from traversing the bridge due to safety concerns.
“We’d been keeping an eye on the bridge for some time, as it was slated for replacement,” said Buxton. “Some steel had deteriorated to the point that it could only service light vehicles.”
The outside steel beams support the bridge deck, and some 940 vehicles cross the Fort Kent bridge daily, according to a recent MDOT press release.
Buxton said the decision was made purely for safety issues, and “not at all” related to the recent decision by the government of New Brunswick to hold off on approval of the approximately $5.5 million dollars for their half of the funding for the new international bridge, tentatively scheduled for replacement by spring of 2013.
“Even if the Canadians stepped up to the plate tomorrow, the restriction would still be in place,” Buxton said.
When talking to the New Brunswick DOT, he said, they agreed with the findings to keep the heavier traffic off of the bridge.
“That’s our job in public safety,” he said, “to keep the bridges as safe as we can.”
Bruce Ibarguen, state traffic engineer for MDOT, said that the current truck traffic for vehicles over three tons is an average of 40 trucks per day at the Fort Kent / Clair bridge, built in 1929. It is hard to estimate exactly how much traffic will divert to using the Madawaska / Edmundston, N.B. bridge once the restriction is posted, he said Thursday, as some drivers might instead continue on to the Van Buren / St. Leonard, N.B. or the Houlton / Woodstock, N.B. border crossings to get to Canada.
Buxton said that the Madawaska bridge is in “much better condition” than the Fort Kent bridge, and that he didn’t see a safety issue with diverted traffic there.
The signs were exposed Tuesday night, Jan. 4 on both sides of the bridge and officially went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5. Only passenger cars and light trucks will be allowed to cross.
Guimond said the border down in St. Pamphile, Que., has private roads, so the only real resort for trucks from Allagash to Fort Kent to cross into Canada, he said, is to continue to Madawaska, which is about 20 miles northeast of Fort Kent, or beyond.
“That’s 80 miles round trip (from Allagash),” he said. “That’s real money – it’s not a good thing.”
Guimond does not see a happy ending to the issue any time soon.
“Assuming the bridge is funded, that’s two years down the road before we’ll see this resolved,” he said.
The town of Fort Kent was not given much warning, Guimond said, as the MDOT called Dec. 21, the Tuesday before Christmas, to advise that the recent inspection had found some problems.
“Common courtesy would have been to allow time for the industry to prepare,” said Guimond.