The Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) announced recently that the Machias Dike Bridge in the coastal town of about 2,000 people will be closed after Thanksgiving in both directions so workers can start building a new temporary bridge on top of its current structure.
The existing bridge, dating back to the Civil War, carries U.S. Highway 1/Main Street over the Middle River in Machias.
According to MaineDOT, the bridge is quickly deteriorating, and bridge inspectors have observed voids in the bridge's structure as well as some soil loss that would likely jeopardize travel safety.
Part of the shoulder and parking area on the southbound (upstream) side of the bridge were closed Nov. 7.
Over the coming months, MaineDOT will install the temporary bridge over the existing structure to maintain traffic on the bridge and adjacent Sunrise Trail. The construction project, though, will result in the closure of U.S. Highway 1/Main Street for only about a week to allow time for a detour to be created.
The state agency's website noted on its Machias Dike Bridge project page that inspectors observed areas of concern during a routine check of the structure in September. Divers returned to the area in the first week of November only to find new areas of soil loss between the concrete slab under the road surface and the timber that forms the top of the gated boxes.
As a result, MaineDOT is changing its preferred alternative for the replacement of the Machias Dike Bridge to one that will involve the continued use of fully gated culverts.
That follows several years of feasibility studies to improve or replace the existing bridge. In the last 16 months, MaineDOT said it has continued to receive public and stakeholder input concerning the effort.
Community stakeholders and landowners adjacent to the Middle River have repeatedly expressed concerns about the flooding that would be associated with a bridge alternative, according to MaineDOT, but the department explained that although it understands "that some may prefer a bridge alternative and tidal restoration, the [agency] believes a fully gated culvert alternative will best meet the project's purpose and need. This alternative will improve the structure's condition, maintain the Sunrise Trail, provide for future rail use, and avoid flooding hundreds of acres of land."
MaineDOT is currently preparing a draft environmental assessment of the gated culvert alternative under the National Environmental Policy Act. The state agency also intends to hold a public meeting on the assessment in early 2024. The project itself should be entering the design phase by next fall.
Permanent Bridge Upgrade Likely Years Away
Although MaineDOT said the new build is only a temporary fix, Machias Town Manager Bill Kitchen believes it may take a while for the department to move forward with a more permanent repair.
"This is a temporary structure, [and] I think temporary is going to be measured in years," he told WCSH-TV News Center Maine in Portland.
He added that since there is no timeframe for how long the temporary bridge will be in place, he hopes that MaineDOT will build a structure that does not cut away from the dike's shoulder space that has become a hub of commercial and social activity, including a farmers market, antique and flea markets, and food vendors.
"The question is going to be just how much of the vendor area, the shoulder area and the non-travel lane is going to be affected?" Kitchen said.
In addition, traffic across the dike bridge is heavy and often crowded with cyclists, pedestrians, ATVs and even snowmobiles.
"There's an awful lot of modes of transportation going on at any given time, and it was never designed to have the economic activity that it does with all the vendors setting up," he noted.
Kitchen said he believes Machias residents have also been worried that the bridge would unexpectedly fail at some point.
Mariah Mace, who works at the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office near the bridge, added that just such a failure has been a concern of hers. She added that she is happy MaineDOT is taking corrective action.
"I'm kind of glad because it's been such a hot topic for such a long time," Mace said to the Portland TV station. "Last year there was a storm and there was a big dip in the road there that they had to repair pretty quickly."
WIC provides food vouchers for baby formula, and support for pregnant women and women who have young children. Mace is now worried that the new detour routes and traffic may make it harder for the families she serves to reach her organization.
According to Kitchen, the community will adjust to the detours while the temporary bridge is being built; it is the actual design of the causeway that concerns him, he said.
"Not the dike itself, but the causeway," Kitchen explained. "As in, what's exactly on the surface? What are we going to have for a vendor area? What are the improvements to safety that we're going to have? Is there going to be a landscape buffer?"
He sees the Machias Dike Bridge building project as an opportunity to make the causeway safer and to add some new features.
"Perhaps a second passage lane for bicycles and pedestrians and then keep the ATVs and snowmobiles to [another] lane," Kitchen said. "There's the possibility of some landscape buffers, safety improvements for the fishing pier and safety improvements for pedestrians and the vendor area."
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