Fryeburg selectman not happy with MDOT over Red Iron Bridge

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

FRYEBURG — It was a split vote, earlier this month, when the Fryeburg Board of Selectmen approved entering into a formal memorandum of agreement with the Maine Department of Transportation regarding the Red Iron Bridge.

Selectman Ed Wilkey cast the only dissenting vote March 17, while Selectmen Rick Eastman and Tom Klinepeter voted in favor of the motion to have Town Manager Sharon Jackson sign a formal agreement with MDOT.

The memorandum of agreement was the culmination of months of lobbying of then MDOT Commissioner David Cole by townspeople and local officials who pled with MaineDOT not to close and/or remove the Red Iron Bridge at the end of McNeil Road in North Fryeburg. The current head of MaineDOT, under Governor Paul LePage, is Commissioner David B. Bernhardt, who is expected to sign the memorandum of agreement with the town.

The memorandum of agreement reads: “This agreement is entered by and between the Maine Department of Transportation and the Town of Fryeburg in order to clarify roles and responsibilities for the continued operation and possible future improvement or removal of the Red Iron Bridge.”

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The formal memorandum of agreement between MaineDOT and the town of Fryeburg regarding the Red Iron Bridge states the following:

• MaineDOT will not be performing any significant maintenance to the bridge.

• MaineDOT will continue to inspect the bridge in accordance with the National Bridge Inspection requirements.

• MaineDOT will post the bridge as necessary to protect public safety.

• MaineDOT will post the bridge immediately if additional deterioration or movement occurs which renders the bridge unsafe or unserviceable.

• MaineDOT will notify the town as soon as practicable if the bridge requires a change in posting or closure.

• Once MaineDOT determines that the bridge must be closed, MaineDOT will perform sufficient engineering to identify the appropriate repairs or full replacement to restore service, including estimated costs.

• MaineDOT will present its findings to the town. The town will have up to 18 months from receipt of MaineDOT’s findings to exercise one of the following two options: a) raise 50% of the repair/replacement cost and transmit the town share to MaineDOT, or b) notify MaineDOT that the town will not be participating in the repair/replacement option, in which case MaineDOT will remove the bridge with 100% federal/state funds.

• If the bridge is removed under (the terms listed in the statement) above, then this agreement is terminated.

• If the town performs any work on the bridge without MaineDOT’s written permission, then the state will immediately transfer ownership and maintenance responsibility to the town.

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It goes on to say that the Red Iron Bridge is a 123-foot, steel span girder bridge carrying McNeil Road over the Old Course of the Saco River and it was built in 1957. It states further that, “Whereas, the MaineDOT recently replaced the Charles River Bridge which is located approximately 0.5 miles from the Red Iron Bridge, providing redundancy in the highway system within the Fryeburg Harbor area and whereas Maine DOT must manage nearly 3,000 bridges and minor spans statewide, and available resources must be prioritized to maximize the benefit to travelers statewide and…the bridge is near the end of its useful life and now requires load posting to protect public safety and…due to the redundancy of construction and the nature of its structural deterioration, Red Iron Bridge can remain in service without immediate risk of catastrophic failure, and…the bridge is located on a Local road with low traffic volumes and a short detour available and…the bridge provides limited benefit to the traveling public compared to statewide bridge needs, and…the town wishes to keep the bridge in service as long as safe and practicable, and…the town wishes to preserve the option to keep a crossing at this location in the future.”

There are nine statements, or conditions, to which both the town and MaineDOT agree to, under the formal memorandum of agreement. (See accompanying sidebar).

Selectman Wilkey not happy

“This (memorandum of agreement) does address all of the issues we discussed, except the last one (about any work being performed on the bridge by the town),” Town Manager Jackson told the three selectmen, at their March 17 meeting. “We wouldn’t be doing anything to the bridge anyway.”

“I want the (Red Iron) Bridge fixed — not taken down — but I want the state to pay for it,” Selectman Wilkey stated.

Wilkey spoke to the section in the memorandum of agreement that states “MaineDOT will continue to inspect the bridge in accordance with National Bridge Inspection requirements.”

“That’s a joke,” Wilkey said. “They never did it (an inspection) — that’s why it’s in the shape it’s in now — I don’t want the town to pay 50% (of the repair or replacement cost).”

Wilkey said further, “I think we should go to the new (MaineDOT) commissioner and the new governor — and what if Weston’s Bridge (on River Street) has a similar problem? We can’t afford to pay for all these. Where does it stop? This, I think, is sending the wrong message. If it’s going to gain us time, I’ll vote for it, but (we should) still pursue the commissioner and the governor. I don’t think we should pay for something we didn’t do.”

Selectman Eastman pointed out that any monies spent to repair or replace the Red Iron Bridge would have to go before voters anyway, and the state will allow the town up to 18 months to decide what it wants to do, in any case.

“We would take it to town meeting, to see if the town wants to pay that 50%,” Selectman Eastman said.

“I don’t like the language (in the agreement), and I definitely will push to get meetings with the governor and our legislators, because we didn’t do this,” Selectman Wilkey stated.

“This is the best deal we’re going to get,” Chairman Klinepeter said, of his and the town manager’s prior meeting with a MaineDOT official to discuss the conditions of the agreement. “The state is only doing six bridges this year, and he (the MaineDOT official) said bluntly, again, the state doesn’t have the money to do this. Eighteen months gives us plenty of time to have discourse and go to town meeting. And, if the majority of the voters of Fryeburg decide they don’t want to repair it or replace it and want it taken out, they (MaineDOT) will take it out, at no cost to the town, and the people of Fryeburg will be making the decision.”

“And, this decision did come from the commissioner,” said Town Manager Jackson.

When the time came to vote, Eastman and Klinepeter voted to enter in to the memorandum of agreement with MaineDOT, and Wilkey voted against it.

“I’m going to oppose it, for the reasons I mentioned,” said Selectman Wilkey. “I want the state to fix it all by themselves.”

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