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Landmark Span Will Remain Long After New Bridge Opens

Fri December 01, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Clarke Canfield - ASSOCIATED PRESS

VERONA ISLAND, Maine (AP) When the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge opens next month, drivers will no longer use the aging Waldo-Hancock Bridge it is replacing. But that doesn’t mean the old suspension bridge will disappear overnight.

The Waldo-Hancock Bridge was an engineering marvel when it opened 75 years ago at a cost of $846,000. Its soaring cables and towers make it look like a miniature Golden Gate Bridge, which opened six years later.

But sitting next to the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge, the bridge now seems downright puny. And with its towers rusting, its paint peeling and concrete falling apart in places, the signs of age and neglect are unmistakable.

The question remains: When will the old bridge be taken down?

The answer: At best, it’s several years away.

Not long ago, people were clamoring to keep the Waldo-Hancock Bridge intact. Nowadays, many are eager for it to be gone so they can see the new bridge with its 440-ft. towers and spider web-like cables stand on its own, said Tom Doe, the state Department of Transportation’s (DOT) project engineer for the new bridge.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see some political pressure to get it down quickly,” Doe said.

State officials said the estimated $10 million to $12 million needed to tear the bridge down isn’t available right away. Even with the federal government paying for 80 percent of the removal costs, the state doesn’t have the necessary funds given the other transportation needs around the state, said DOT Spokeswoman Carol Morris.

That means the Waldo-Hancock Bridge could be standing for years to come.

“We’re hoping it won’t be longer than 10 years, but it probably won’t be before three to five,” Morris said.

Taking it down will be no easy feat.

The bridge, which towers 135 ft. above the river, is 2,040 ft. long. It’s held in place with two concrete piers that rise 29 ft. above water and sink 45 below.

In likelihood, the bridge will be dismantled in reverse order of how it went up, Doe said.

That means the road deck would be the first thing to go. Next would be the bridge span, which probably will be removed by cutting it into big sections — 50, 75 or 100 ft. long — that would be lowered by crane or winch to a barge in the river, Doe said.

With the span gone, that would leave only the two towers, the suspension cables and the suspenders that hang down from the cables and are connected to the span.

After the suspenders are detached, the cables would be parted in the middle of the bridge, probably with an explosive charge or a large saw, Doe said. The cables would fall into the river, and workers would pull them out of the water and cut them up on a barge, Doe said.

Once the cables are removed, only the two 206-ft. towers would remain. They would probably be taken apart in sections from top to bottom, Doe said.

“In all, I think it would take less than a year,” he said.

It beats the alternative.

While rare, there have been a couple of cases of similar bridges collapsing.

The Silver Bridge, which was built in 1938 over the Ohio River between Point Pleasant, W.Va., and Kanauga, Ohio, collapsed without warning on Dec. 15, 1967. Forty-six people died.

The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state collapsed during a windstorm on Nov. 7, 1940, just four months after it opened. Remarkably, nobody was killed.

Deterioration of the suspension cables on the Waldo-Hancock bridge came to light during a renovation project in the summer of 2003. Engineers later determined that building a new bridge was the only long-term solution.

In taking down the bridge, officials will have to consider the effect on the environment and on navigation on the river, which is used by recreational boaters, oil tankers, small cruise ships and barges.

DOT officials also are looking at a way to memorialize the old bridge, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places and evokes strong memories for people who are accustomed to seeing it rise above the pine trees.

Dave Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director, recalls walking up one of the bridge’s cables to the top of the tower when he was a teenager.

Crazy as it sounds, it was a rite of passage.

“If you talk to most 50-year-old men in the Bucksport area, I bet a good portion of them have walked out there at one time or another,” he said.

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