FORT KENT – Either the bridge or port of entry at all three crossings in the Valley are scheduled for construction and there is a possibility of a fourth bridge being added, according to information given at recent business breakfast in Fort Kent.
More than 30 St. John Valley leaders and interested residents gathered Wednesday morning for breakfast with UMFK’s President Wilson Hess and the Maine Department of Transportation to talk about updates to the Valley’s international bridges and ports of entry, some long overdue.
Hosted by Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development’s president Virginia Joles, the early-morning business breakfast, with the help of teleconference technology, brought attendees together with MDOT planner Nathan Howard to discuss ports of entry in Van Buren, Madawaska and Fort Kent.
Howard said there are 400 bridges in Maine now that are functionally obsolete.
“But when you couple functional obsolescence with structural deficiency, that puts the bridge higher on the priority list,” he said, while a large screen showed a wide, arched representation of the newly designed upcoming Fort Kent / Clair bridge.
Howard also shared an update on the Border Crossing Feasibility Study, begun in 2009 and intended to project commercial and residential border traffic through 2030. While the draft final report has yet to roll out, said Howard, upgrades to all three ports of entry are “planned and scheduled,” and that study findings, regardless of their results, will not affect the implementation of the three already-planned upgrades in the Valley.
“Those are happening,” Howard said.
What the comprehensive study may decide, however, is whether or not to build a new commercial crossing in addition to the ports of entry already in place.
“Our biggest recommendation should be pretty black and white,” he said. “We’ll recommend to move forward with a new commercial crossing, or we won’t recommend it.”
With a slide presentation, Howard shared with the audience proposed new designs for either the bridge or the port of entry in each location. In Fort Kent, that means a complete replacement of the aging, too-narrow international bridge with a taller, 25-foot wider, more structurally sound model, construction of which will begin advertising for bids next spring, according to the MDOT.
The Fort Kent project will not use stimulus funds, but will be funded by “the usual federal and state bridge repair funding allotment,” said John Bannen, Fort Kent’s director of economic and community development. Those funds will constitute Fort Kent’s half of the approximate $11 million needed for the project, with the municipality of Clair, N.B. paying the other half.
In Madawaska, there are no plans to replace the International Bridge; however, the border station will be replaced as it is considered an “undersized, obsolete, and inefficient facility,” according to the MDOT.
It also does not meet post-9-11 security standards, is restrictive for commercial traffic, and has frequent traffic backups, said the DOT in their presentation.
Alternatives proposed for a new, approximately $50 million station were either on Mill Street or upriver, on a plateau owned by Fraser, said Howard, and may be an elevated roadway, which would cross the railroad tracks. One new station proposal would have it built 3/8 mile west of the bridge, and would have separate inspection stations for automobiles and trucks, and more space for Customs and Border Patrol, USDA, security screening and lockers, far more than is available now.
If trucks are choosing other ports because of “cumbersome permit restrictions,” said Howard, they would be able to use this newly-designed Madawaska port and have all of the processes in place. “It would be a full commercial facility supported by the MDOT.”
Construction on the new Madawaska port is scheduled to begin in 2012 and may take two or more years, said Howard.
The Van Buren port of entry, which has been sitting in temporary trailer facilities since it was damaged in the 2008 flooding, will also receive a necessary rebuild, with a proposed 44,000 gross square feet, energy efficient, high performance facility with up-to-date technology and expanded capacity, said Howard. The $31 million project would be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and will be the first of the three projects to be worked on.
Dan LaPointe, director of Economic and Community Development for Van Buren, also announced during the meeting that “a $19.5 million project for the Hamlin border crossing has been cleared for review and should be under construction next summer.”
With Valley-wide construction planned during the same approximate timeframe as the World Acadian Congress in 2014, a question arose from the audience as to the impact on travelers attending the congress. Howard assured meeting-goers that while the DOT expects to have port of entry projects underway in Fort Kent and Madawaska at that time, they are trying to coordinate with the Maine Department of Tourism to address the concern about any possible impact to Madawaska during the congress, expected to attract thousands of visitors to the area.