Bridgtonites unite to fight Causeway guardrail

HOW IT MIGHT APPEAR — A Maine Department of Transportation engineer showed this photo at Tuesday’s public meeting in Bridgton to illustrate how the Moose Pond Causeway might look if the granite stones were replaced with NU-Guard31®, a brown powder-coated guardrail, as MDOT engineers are recommending.

HOW IT MIGHT APPEAR — A Maine Department of Transportation engineer showed this photo at Tuesday’s public meeting in Bridgton to illustrate how the Moose Pond Causeway might look if the granite stones were replaced with NU-Guard31®, a brown powder-coated guardrail, as MDOT engineers are recommending.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

With well-reasoned arguments backed by a wealth of anecdotal evidence, Bridgton residents united Tuesday to convince highway officials not to install guardrails on the Moose Pond Causeway and leave all of the granite stones in place.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Selectmen Chairman Bernie King, summarizing the near-unanimous opinion of the around 50 people who attended a public meeting to discuss the impact a metal guardrail — even a brown powder-coated version — would have on the National Register-eligible Causeway.

The local meeting was led by planners from the Federal Highway Administration and Maine Department of Transportation charged with recommending a final design for the Causeway pavement overlay project, being done concurrently this summer with a larger reconstruction along a five-mile stretch of Route 302 in West Bridgton.

“A decision has not yet been made,” said MDOT engineer Colin Greenan, who acknowledged his agency erred previously by not involving the public in their post-scoping review of the historical and architectural properties of the federal highway project as required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The review requires that a letter be sent to the local municipality, and that was not done, he said. “We’ve hit the reset button, and are taking a step back.”

BACK IN 1922 there was a wooden guardrail along the Moose Pond Causeway, a Maine Department of Transportation official pointed out at Tuesday’s public meeting. The granite blocks, from a quarry in Redstone, N.H., were put in place around 1952 during a major reconstruction and widening of the expanse.

BACK IN 1922 there was a wooden guardrail along the Moose Pond Causeway, a Maine Department of Transportation official pointed out at Tuesday’s public meeting. The granite blocks, from a quarry in Redstone, N.H., were put in place around 1952 during a major reconstruction and widening of the expanse.

The agency’s Engineering Council, federal highway administration officials and state historic preservation officers will meet on Jan. 14 to review the public record of Tuesday’s meeting, he said, “and a final, informed decision will be made.”

Greenan did say, however, that after hearing the concerns of Bridgton Selectmen and several residents at an earlier meeting, MDOT modified their initial plans for a standard gun-metal guardrail in favor of a brown powder-coated rail with narrow posts, which would allow 326 of the 451 granite blocks to remain in place behind the guardrail.

In his 40-minute presentation, Greenan said MDOT is taking a “statewide, systemic, proactive approach” with all of their pavement overlay and reconstruction projects to install safety guardrails as part of the project, if deemed necessary.

“This is a Priority 1 Corridor, and mobility is our main concern,” Greenan said. The stretch of highway carries 4,800 vehicles per day, 13% of which are trucks, and is only second to the Interstate in terms of its importance as a transportation corridor, he said.

Greenan said the Causeway has 12-foot travel lanes and eight-foot shoulders with steep slopes and the waters of Moose Pond on either side. In MDOT’s view, the granite blocks are “deadly fixed objects” and the water beyond is considered a hazard.

A third of all highway crashes are “run-off-the-road” crashes, he said, and half of all motor vehicle deaths happen when the vehicle runs off the road. Greenan acknowledged that the Causeway doesn’t have a history of run-off-the-road crashes and no fatalities, but said the stones, steep slopes and water are “a deadly combination.”

Greenan said the agency’s position currently has three key points: the stones can remain mostly in place, as long as a guardrail is in front; the existing parking can remain unchanged (it’s a no-parking zone, but not enforced); signage for parking is possible at Sabatis Island, at the midpoint of the Causeway; and the entire expanse can be restriped as a no-passing zone (passing is currently allowed on part of the Causeway).

Greenan also reviewed some of the Causeway’s history, pointing out that guardrails in the form of steel rebar rods were used as early as 1908, and a wooden guardrail was used when the Causeway was widened and filled in, in 1922. The stones didn’t come along until 1952 when the last major reconstruction took place. He said the state was willing to amend its plans for a culvert then, when the bridge was moved closer to Sabatis Island, and created a 25-foot travel channel for boat access instead.

“The Causeway has evolved over time,” and because of the history between 1920 and 1953, “We knew (a guardrail) would have an adverse effect — that’s why we’re here tonight.”

Greenan said engineers considered a suggestion by Bridgton Selectmen to lower the speed limit, “But the problem is, there is no cue to slow down” on approaching the Causeway on either end, such as the transition from a rural to a more urban developed area. Furthermore, he said, lowering the speed limit “contradicts the purpose” of the highway as a mobility corridor for nonlocal residents.

Not all of the granite stones can remain with a guardrail in front, he said, because a guardrail needs a three-foot clearance in order to bend enough to absorb the impact from a crash. In some places there’s just not enough clearance, he said.

The townspeople respond

None of the dozen or so residents who offered comments at the meeting thought Greenan had made the case that a guardrail was absolutely necessary, however. Many favored lowering the speed limit from 50 to 40 miles an hour and adding signage at either end to alert motorists that a scenic vista is ahead. And the view was unanimous that the Causeway should be restriped as a no-passing zone.

Town Manager Bob Peabody was among several residents who pointed out that MDOT was ignoring the natural traffic calming effect of the Causeway; that may well be the reason there have been so few accidents there since the stones were put in place.

“When I come to that Causeway, I naturally slow down,” he said, without needing an artificial barrier like a guardrail to do so. And Peabody spoke for many when he stressed the aesthetic and historical value of the granite blocks as an integral part of Bridgton’s identity.

“It may be your mobility corridor, but it’s our town,” Peabody said. More than anywhere else, he said, the Causeway “epitomizes our sense of place.”

Dave MacFarland, a volunteer inspector at the Causeway’s boat landing, said “It’s the speed that’s the issue as far as safety,” with all the activities that take place — such as people parking and sightseeing, hauling boats and trailers in and out of the landing or visiting the dozen or so picnic sites on Sabatis Island. “It’s not about going into the lake.”

Moose Pond summer resident William Warren of Gorham called the stones “red granite guardians,” and said his research of MDOT crash site records over a five-year period through December 2014 showed no record of any accidents on the Causeway proper, and only two crashes at the extreme west end just beyond the Causeway at Stack Em Inn Road. Over the past 40 years, he said, a tow truck operator told him he had towed only eight vehicles (see Warren’s full statement in this paper).

Mike Tarantino said the worst safety concern he’s seen was when a turtle was crossing the highway and a driver had to swerve to avoid hitting it. He asked if an exception would be more likely if the Causeway was officially listed with the National Register of Historic Places instead of just being eligible, but Greenan said in the Section 108 review that eligible projects are treated just the same as if they were actually on the list.

Tarantino said he’s seen instances in Italy, Canada and elsewhere where the guardrail was placed behind the stones instead of in front, and wondered why MDOT refused to consider that option.

“You can’t get to the point where it becomes so safe that it’s sterile,” he said.

Bill Preis called the Causeway “one of the prettiest places in this area,” and agreed that people naturally slow down to look at it. With all the activity at the boat landing, including an annual bass tournament, he said he was “astounded” at the lack of accidents.

“Get away from the politically correct stuff and leave it the way it is,” Preis urged the panel.

Russell Brown said Acadia National Park sees 700,000 vehicles a year, and yet in places the safety barriers are granite posts, “and there are no plans to replace them.” He suggested resetting some of the Causeway stones that have settled and no longer provide an effective barrier.

Selectman Ken Murphy said more people have stopped him in the last month than at any other time over this issue, and all of them are against removal of the stones.

“I’m pleading with you, work with us,” said Murphy. “We are the people who live here.”

Kevin Raday said he’s lived close by the Causeway since 1975, and urged the panel to focus on the anecdotal information residents are providing.

“It really is when you get to Bridgton, to the Causeway, that you know why you are here,” Raday said. He suggested one way to accommodate parking would be to have unequal shoulder widths to create scenic vista turnouts.

Spencer Ordway, a business owner on Moose Pond, said that more work needs to be done to improve safety at the boat landing, regardless of how the guardrail dispute is resolved. Program Manager Brad Foley said MDOT will be looking at those needs.

Selectman Paul Hoyt said, “The difficulty here is that you’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.” He said lowering the speed limit to 40 miles an hour seems a suitable way to justify granting a design exception for no guardrail. Foley said MDOT would still need a design exception even if the speed limit were lowered.

Hoyt emphasized the unanimity of local opinion against a guardrail and said selectmen are “all on the same page — and that doesn’t happen very often.”

Bob Hatch pointed out that “deadly fixed objects are everywhere,” and bemoaned the fact that it “seems we always try to fix things to the lowest common denominator.” He added, “We’re never going to legislate or design roads to eliminate” drivers who aren’t paying attention.

Leave the Red Granite Guardians in place

(Editor’s note: The level of passionate interest in preserving the granite blocks along the Moose Pond Causeway is reflected by the following prepared remarks by Moose Pond summer resident William Warren, who was one of around 50 people who attended Tuesday’s Maine Department of Transportation public meeting.)

I am speaking in opposition of the placement of a guardrail to replace, supplant, or reinforce the Red Granite Guardians which have been in place since 1953/4 and can be seen from my residence on Upper Moose Pond daily.

These granite blocks were cut from granite in Redstone, N.H., and have served as a barrier for the Moose Pond Causeway since installation during the last highway reconstruction in 1953/54.

According to crash site records obtained from the Scarborough MDOT office covering the period from January 2010 through December 2014, there have been only two recorded crashes between nodes 9712 and 9714, which are the extreme ends of the Causeway on the east and the west. Neither of these crashes was on the Causeway proper, but at the Stack Em Inn Road west of the Causeway. Therefore, there are no crash reports listed by the MDOT Traffic Engineering, Crash Records Section. A local hauler has reported anecdotally that he has towed eight vehicles from the Causeway in a 40-year period; there is no record of hauling from where. Now, it would be foolhardy for me to imply that the Red Granite Guardians, i.e deadly fixed objects, are safer than a guardrail, but there have been no personal injury reports for five of the 62 years they have been in place and no anecdotal reports of the remaining 57 years during the last six months of discussion. This safety record, I believe, also reflects a driver attitude when driving along a waterway, as well as the “slow down” tendency to observe the beauty of the area.

The history of the speed limit on the Causeway could only be obtained back to 1988, when a request was made — for perhaps a lower speed limit — by the Chief of Police in Bridgton and MDOT responded that there was no justification for a change. One could assume that the speed limit back to 1953/54 was also set at 50, suggesting that the speed limit has, perhaps, remained unchanged through the present but definitely from 1988 until now, a period of 27 years.

As a lifelong resident, either permanent or part-time, I have traversed the Moose Pond Causeway thousands of times since acquiring my driver’s license 62 years ago, which includes the 61 years since the roadway was reconstructed in 1953/54. During those trips across the Causeway, excluding nighttimes and inclement weather, I would speculate that more times than not I would pass vehicles parked on the roadside on the Causeway — many times in the vicinity of the bridge, as that is a favorite and easily-accessible fishing spot, especially for physically-limited individuals. Often, individuals are just sitting and I am assuming enjoying the view; in the fall foliage season and early winter, when the mountain is reflected on early ice or in early evening taking photographs; and in winter, watching the fishing activity on both sides of the Causeway.

It is my understanding that if the guardrail was to be put in place, approximately 153 of the 451 granite blocks are scheduled for removal, as they obstruct the placement of the guardrail; the remaining 298 will be left in place. As the guardrail will obviously be placed on the roadway side of the remaining Red Granite Guardians, that certainly will decrease the distance from the edge of the travel lane to the guardrail by, what, eight to 15 inches? And, given that the breakdown lane now has just sufficient width for a vehicle to park, this will, in no doubt, increase the danger of accidents as people will park there anyway, as was noted in the meeting with town officials and others in October.

The guardrails proposed by MDOT, as reported by The Bridgton News, and defended by MDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt due to “It’s all about safety…and it’d be very hard for me to say ‘No, no guardrail’” because of more crossing of lanes and runoff road accidents. It appears that the commissioner is supporting the decision by Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor, who was identified as the person who has the ultimate authority according to correspondence I received from MDOT in June 2015. The extrapolation of the crash history across the state of Maine to the Causeway appears to me to be faulty and unfounded. It flies in the face of the crash record reports from MDOT for at least a five-year period — and, one would assume, during the heaviest annual traffic load compared to 1953/54, given that MDOT has reported steadily increasing traffic on Route 302.

As a Bridgton native and a state of Maine resident, I am dismayed and offended that the MDOT moved forward on the recommendation of a guardrail without subscribing to their own policies and procedures, which required public input and did not obtain it. And not only that, they signed an agreement on June 30 that implied that a Section 106 review was, in fact, completed, when it was not.

Lastly, it is my contention that whatever recommendation/decision rendered by the Engineering Council and subsequent decisions by those the Council is advisory to are null and void, due to the Section 106 procedures not being followed as required.

In summary, I believe that leaving the Red Granite Guardians in place without a guardrail will: maintain an aesthetic and photogenic view for residents and travelers through Bridgton; will have no negative impact on roadside parking safety; will pose no increased danger due to maintaining these “deadly fixed objects” given the crash history of the Causeway proper; and will please the concerns of many Bridgton and nonresident persons of interest.

 

 

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