Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: The Veterans Bridge was rebuilt Fore no good reason

July 1, 2016

The Veterans Bridge was rebuilt Fore no good reason

by Zack Barowitz

There I was with my stupid bicycle, amid a cohort of cycling activists, as part of a larger audience listening to a prattling National Guard Colonel, when I realized that I was being played as a sucker. It was a warm summer day four years ago, a friend had asked if I wanted to go to the opening of the new Veterans Memorial Bridge. The new bridge was built to “last 100 years” and featured an improved bike lane (it could hardly have been worse); this would be cause for celebration.

The Colonel was giving lip service to veterans, many of whom end up as collateral damage of the Military Industrial Congressional Complex. The ceremony was agitating me as I consider war an essentially senseless endeavor and get deeply cynical when it is glorified; I left shortly after the Colonel called First Lady Ann LePage to the podium.

That was four years ago and I’m still smarting.

Nevermind the jingoism, the fake public art (“reed poles”), the supremely confusing intersection that was installed on the Portland side, or the dangerous crosswalk on the SoPo side. I could live with those mediocrities if it were not for the fact that the bridge was a $65.1 million dollar boondoggle that should never have been built.

A quick refresher: There are four bridges between Portland and South Portland along the two-mile stretch of the Portland waterfront: 

  • The Casco Bay Bridge — formerly the more evocatively named Million Dollar Bridge, although as my mom pointed out many years ago, a million dollars doesn’t seem like a lot to spend on a bridge.

  • The old Veterans Memorial Bridge — which is still in use by the railway despite Maine Department of Transportation’s (MDoT) assessment that the bridge is “deteriorating rapidly.”

  • The new Veterans Memorial Bridge, resplendent with reed poles, foot paths, and crappy transitions.

  • The 295 causeway — the bridge with no name — whose shoulders make excellent, although illegal, bike lanes.

The 295 causeway and the Veterans Bridge both commence from essentially the same point in South Portland. Maybe at one point in time it made a certain amount of sense to have the two bridges forking out from the same starting place towards Commercial Street and to Congress Street; but that was before the Fore River Parkway — another boondoggle — was built to connect 295 with Commercial Street. 

There is a lot to dislike about the Fore River Parkway, especially from an environmental point of view. But apart from being a giant driveway to the new Mercy Hospital, it does provide a quick connection between Commercial Street and the Highway — and the off-ramps are better engineered than the high-crash ramps along Congress Street. 

Despite the good ramp design, Maine DoT’s traffic engineers have steadfastly refused to account for the Fore River Parkway when studying major projects like closing the redundant ramps in Libbytown; or removing the urban highways that run through downtown, or when it came to decide whether to rebuild the Veterans Bridge.

The $65.1 million dollars ($50 million of it federal) spent on the bridge could have gone to small but useful transportation projects like improving sidewalks, purchasing snow removal equipment, building curb cuts, enhancing public transportation, or breaking ground on the re-envisioned Franklin Street. What’s more, the old bridge did not even need to be torn down, it could have been converted to a bicycle and pedestrian trail (yes, kinda like the High Line).

So why did the Veterans Memorial Bridge get built? One possibility is that since $65.1 million is a big contract, those firms that are big enough to vie for them are also big enough to lobby the Federal and State governments for their necessity.

But there is a human factor concerning the personality and aspirations of the engineers and administrators who populate the DoTs: These men like big projects built by big machines with lots of concrete and steel. Relaying brick sidewalks or making streets “pedestrian friendly” isn’t so much mundane, but simply wimpy.

My bike/ped alternative transport wimpiness was exploited by the DoTs when they wanted the support of cyclists. It will take another 94 years to get over it.