June 16, 2019

Narrow `singing bridge’ tests drivers’ nerve

SULLIVAN — Hancock and Sullivan residents who are forced to use the narrow steel bridge that connects their two communities have dubbed it the “singing bridge.”

Tires hum on the bridge’s open grid surface, but the noise strikes a note of discord with most drivers. Two ordinary-sized vehicles can pass comfortably, but a large truck coming the other way can be a harrowing experience for motorists.

Residents admit that a trace of sweat has broken out on their brow as they edged their car closer to the side of the bridge and held their breath, hoping they would not hear the sound of their car scraping against the steel girders. When the vehicles pass without incident, they congratulate themselves. They have survived the challenge of the singing bridge.

Paul McDonald, assistant bridge-design engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the state recently had reviewed the condition of the bridge.

When it was built in 1946, the bridge’s 20-foot width satisfied area transportation demands. Today, the bridge is slated to be replaced by a structure 34 feet wide.

McDonald said many factors determine the longevity of a bridge. “A bridge can have a 75-year life. We have one that is over 100 years old,” he said. McDonald said the bridge’s substructure is in relatively good shape.

At one time the bridge opened and closed to allow boats to pass. In the 1940s the U.S. Coast Guard and the state decided that a drawbridge was not needed. “The department requested that it be closed because the mechanism wasn’t working,” McDonald said.

Although it is narrow, the bridge has not been the site of an excessive number of motor vehicle accidents. McDonald believed local drivers were aware of the bridge’s limitations and were extra careful. “As far as accidents, the record of reported accidents is not high. We have some bridges that are wider that have had more accidents,” he said.

McDonald said the DOT uses a critical-rate factor when it assesses the condition of a bridge.

“If that number is above one, it shows that it is becoming critical as to accidents. This one is close to one, but is not over. We have some that are up to nine. Every time we start a project, we do a bridge-traffic study showing the accidents over a period of three years. When we encounter a large number in those three years, we go into another two-year or five-year period. In this case, this bridge has been about average for a bridge like that,” he said.

Another part of the review process, McDonald said, is assignment of a sufficiency rating. Bridges are rated from zero to 100, with zero being the worst. “This one was rated around 65 at the time they first looked at it. The paint has started to corrode … so the number was lowered somewhat,” he said.

In a letter to Sullivan officials, Gov. John R. McKernan stated that the bridge first was considered by the DOT for possible replacement in 1984-85, but it did not have sufficient priority to warrant immediate attention. He said the state would hold a public hearing on the issue this fall. Funds to construct a new bridge will not be available until the 1996-97 fiscal year, the governor said.

The Sullivan selectmen, at their meeting Wednesday night, were not enthusiastic about the situation. They said they had little faith that the bridge would be replaced as promised and pledged to continue to pester the state until it addressed the problem.

Although the state has not reached the design stage of the project, tentative plans call for a new bridge that would parallel the existing one. If the prestressed concrete structure were built this year, it would cost an estimated $9 million.

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