BRUNSWICK — New information and a closer examination of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, which has carried traffic between Brunswick and Topsham since 1937, reveals the structure is individually eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Section 106, part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, requires federal agencies to closely examine the impact projects will have on historical structures. The Federal Highway Administration and Maine Department of Transportation are in an ongoing Section 106 process regarding the Green Bridge, as it’s known locally.

For the purposes of Section 106, being eligible for the National Register is equivalent to already being on it.

That’s good news for Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, and anyone with fond sentiments for the structure.

The organization has been trying to stop the Maine Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration from demolishing and replacing the bridge since 2016. Currently posted at 25 tons, the aging structure will need either complete rehabilitation or replacement in the next few years.

Kirk Mohney, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and State Historic Preservation officer, said the bridge has always been eligible as a part of the historic district, but recent evaluations mean it is eligible on its own due to the bridge’s design.

“The evaluation of individual eligibility from our standpoint, and Federal Highway ultimately agreed, was the fact that the bridge was designed not only to carry two lanes of vehicular traffic, but also the trolley that ran from Bath to Lewiston,” he said.

Designed to carry a trolley down the center of the span, “the bridge is wider and it’s taller than a typical bridge of that period that would have been built just for vehicles,” Mohney added. “So it has, we feel, a significant historic association with the inter-urban trolley system.”

Phinney Baxter White, a member of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, believes the bridge should be eligible for even more reasons than just the trolley. “This is the earliest surviving example of rolled steel members,” he said.

The rolled steel, which supports parts of the bridge, was used as a cost-saving measure in the era the bridge was built. That fact may make the bridge eligible for the register under more criteria.

Phinney Baxter White points out a rolled steel member, something that he believes adds to the historic significance of the Frank J. Wood Bridge. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Whether that will have an impact on the bridge’s proposed replacement or not, is unknown.

“For the purposes of this project, I don’t know if it makes any difference whether it’s individually eligible under criterion A or criterion C,” said Mohney.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for MaineDOT, said the new-found eligibility does not change the department’s previous findings. “The bridge was already considered a historic resource in the previous alternative analysis. We are working with the Federal Highway Administration to complete the federal environmental review and documentation process.”

John Graham, president of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, said that process has been skewed by MaineDOT towards replacement since the beginning, largely due to policies put in place in 2007. Those policies followed the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which resulted in 13 deaths and over 100 injuries. An executive order by then Maine Governor John Baldacci tasked MaineDOT with reviewing the bridge inspection program.

Through that review, the “Keeping Our Bridges Safe” report was created, detailing the current status of Maine bridges. In that report, 44 “fracture critical” bridges were identified, the Frank J. Wood being one of them.

“Fracture critical” bridges are typically historic and are built to older construction and safety standards that aren’t “redundant.” If any one part of a bridge fails, it’s likely to collapse, whereas a modern bridge would stay standing until repairs take place.

An early draft of MaineDOT’s Section 4(f) report, another part of the review process, was acquired by Graham via a Freedom of Information Access Request. The report directly mentions the 2007 policy. A MaineDOT statement issued on June 27, 2017 said that replacement of the Green bridge was the preferred alternative.

Graham said that coming out with a preferred option before the Section 106 process was even completed “wasn’t following the law.”

“They made a decision that they don’t want to take any chances,” he said, adding that he believes the deck was stacked against retaining the bridge from the start.

Additional information, like the rehabilitation of the bridge will force long-term closures, is also inaccurate, he said. “They make that whole scare that the bridge is going to be closed for two years.” However, a temporary span would be put in place, and is factored into the estimated cost of rehabilitation presented to the public.

“They throw the number in, but they never advertise the bridge isn’t going to be closed,” Graham said.

Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge also object to the cost estimates that MaineDOT put forth for rehabilitation of the bridge. Graham and the organization have hired an independent engineer to determine if the number MaineDOT gave – $15 to $17 million – is accurate.

MaineDOT has maintained throughout the process that rehabilitation will not only cost more initially, but continue to cost more into the future. The older bridge would require much more maintenance, partially due to its fracture critical nature. With a limited budget, and an increasing need for bridge replacements statewide, the money to maintain fracture critical structures is slim.

In the draft 4(f) report, it states the department would need additional funding to maintain all of the state’s aging bridges. A 2015 report on bridge conditions indicated 15 percent of bridges in the state are “structurally deficient.”

Officials with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal entity overseeing the Section 106 process, have a different take on the potential impact of the bridge’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places.

Charlene Vaughn, assistant director of the Federal Permitting, Licensing, and Assistance Section of the ACHP, said, “It will have to be more directed to options that could preserve the bridge or minimize effects on the bridge directly. It doesn’t ensure its protection, but it does say that more focused analysis has to occur before the project has to move forward.”

“You have to now talk about its workmanship, its location, and how it connects to the community independent of it being part of a district. That’s definitely where a lot of the community will have conversations that would have been obscured if it was just part of the district. It lets you unpack it a little more.”

Vaughn offered the example of a historic garden to clarify the difference between being individually eligible and eligible as part of a district.

“Say that you had a garden. And the garden in its entirety was historic, and everybody agreed to that. Within the garden you had a mound, and that mound had a distinct appearance, and as you understood it was related to a historical event related to something.

“The mound could get subsumed in looking at the overall garden. You have to do analysis and research and peel back the layers.”