NORTH HAVEN — The Pulpit Harbor bridge—or First Bridge, as it’s known to island residents—spans a narrow channel between the harbor and the Mill Stream, a tidal inlet that ultimately feeds the island’s oyster pond. In summer, kids line up to jump off at high tide. The bridge is frequently walked and biked by day-trippers mooring in Pulpit Harbor.
Most importantly, the two-lane bridge is the shortest path to the island’s North Shore for most residents, and on the North Shore is the transfer station.
Community members acted quickly to preserve the two-lane bridge after the Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed a more affordable one-lane replacement at a meeting on North Haven in July following a routine inspection which revealed missing granite blocks in the bridge’s piers. Feedback during the meeting, letters sent to DOT and a social media campaign resulted in the DOT proposing a two-lane reconstruction of the bridge, scheduled to begin in the winter of 2016.
“I think everyone in the room was completely surprised by their preferred plan,” said Selectman Jon Emerson. He said the dozens of people attending the hearing were “united in condemning that as an idea and largely for safety reasons and convenience of commerce.”
Town administrator Joe Stone wrote DOT detailing the town’s opposition, citing flaws in its traffic study, which Stone said failed to take into account North Haven’s “300 percent to 400 percent seasonal disparities in traffic.” He also described the danger of a stop sign at the bridge entrance in icy conditions.
“No one inching his way down an icy, curving hill wants to encounter stopped traffic at the base. No one sitting at the stop sign wants to be a sitting duck for the blind drivers behind him,” Stone said.
Emerson and Stone used social media, particularly the North Haven Maine Facebook page, to rally public support for the letter and to urge residents to contact DOT. Stone said even as he wrote his letter he was frequently interrupted by residents expressing their concern for the one-lane bridge proposal.
On July 25, DOT’s chief engineer Joyce Taylor responded with a letter to the town stating that DOT had considered the feedback and had come up with a two-lane bridge proposal that was $200,000 more than the one-lane proposal, as opposed to their original estimate of $800,000 more.
DOT project manager Stephen Bodge said the original proposal was a cost-saving measure on the state’s part.
“The department has started to investigate ways to spend construction dollars more wisely and one-lane bridges are one option to look at on low speed, low volume, low corridor priority roads,” said Bodge. He said the bridge fit the criteria used by DOT to determine low traffic volume.
The bridge reconstruction will be funded from state and federal money, and not from local taxation, Stone said.
Stone, the town’s road commissioner and harbormaster and two selectmen met with DOT representatives in August to visit the bridge and discuss the new option.
“It was really good,” Emerson said. “There we were on the bridge on a Wednesday, which is dump day, in pretty much high summer with all this traffic going back and forth across the bridge, people going to the dump, people bicycling, people walking.”
Emerson said the DOT representatives were impressed by the amount of traffic.
“Had it been a single-lane bridge, people would have been stopped at both ends until it was time for people to cross and traffic would have backed up,” he said.
“The details have not been finalized yet but we plan to work on the design of a two-lane bridge and present it to the town next summer,” said Bodge. He estimated that construction would begin in the winter of 2016 and be completed by that spring.
Emerson said the town would remain vigilant.
“It was obvious during that meeting that people were concerned and based on their looking at things again people will be glad to have them come back and reassure them about what is happening,” he said.