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Bridge restrictions ‘not major’ but having impact on mill operations

MADAWASKA, Maine — With its manufacturing facilities straddling the St. John River, managers at Twin Rivers Paper Co. will have to make some adjustments for the foreseeable future thanks to a new weight limit on the aging international bridge.

“Well, we aren’t happy with it,” the mill’s vice president for human resources, Glenn Saucier, said Saturday. “It puts a crimp in our style for sure.”

When engineers discovered worse than expected structural deterioration on the bridge connecting Madawaska to Edmundston, New Brunswick, state and provincial transportation officials dropped the single vehicle weight limit from 50 tons down to five tons effective Oct. 27.

That means the bridge is effectively restricted to passenger cars and pickups, and that all commercial vehicles, including tractor trailers, box trucks, buses and fire trucks are now prohibited.

The weight limit for vehicles crossing the international bridge spanning the St. John River between Madawaska and Edmundston, seen in this July 2017 file photo, has been reduced to five tons after inspectors recently discovered more steel deterioration than anticipated on the floor beams and stringers. (File photo | Linda Pelletier)

Heavy vehicles must now take an alternate route through one of the closest border crossings in either Fort Kent, 20 miles away to the west, or Van Buren, 25 miles to the east.

The average traffic, based on annual totals, is about 2,500 vehicles daily, including about 95 trucks per day, according to Maine Department of Transportation spokesperson Ted Talbot.

Some of those trucks carry materials for Twin Rivers, Saucier said.

The company produces pulp in Edmundston, with the paper actually being produced in Madawaska. Some chemicals used in that process are delivered via rail on the Canadian side and transported in bulk across the bridge. Those trucks, Saucier said, will now need to find alternative routes.

The majority of the pulp is transported to the Madawaska mill via pipes and is not affected by the load reductions on the bridge. However, the mill also transports “wet lap pulp” across the bridge in bulk containers. This is kept on hand and used as needed if there is a disruption in the pulp flow through the pipes, Saucier said.

“It’s going to create some issues,” he said.

Twin Rivers’ co-generation plant in Edmundston, which is used to produce steam and electricity, is fueled in part by wood chips from the U.S., mainly from the Masardis and Ashland region. Deliveries of this material will be less effected, according to Saucier, because trucks from that area are already close to the Fort Kent border crossing when heading north.

The bridge restriction to commercial traffic not only impacts the company’s production supply chain but also its ability to ship product to its customers.

Saucier said that paper products produced in Madawaska and destined for customers in both the U.S. and Canada often transit through Edmundston, as the Trans-Canada Highway Route 2 is easily accessible just north of the city.

“Is it a major issue? No. We can still deliver our product,” Saucier said. “It’s just a bit more of a cost.”

Representatives from agencies on both sides of the border have been discussing options for either replacing or repairing the bridge but those plans are still in the development phase.

The spam was built in 1921 and is nearing the end of its useful life, according to the MDOT. The average age of the bridges the agency wants to replace is approximately 70 years.

Officials on the international bridge study team had estimated it could take between six and 15 years to plan and build a new span, depending upon its final location, design and permitting requirements. Madawaska town Manager Gary Picard said recently that he is hoping the new weight limits will help speed up that process.

The Maine Department of Transportation is taking an “all hands on deck” approach, with regards to the Madawaska bridge issues, according Talbot.

“We are moving with an accelerated schedule, but we are not prepared to commit to a date specific at this time,” Talbot said in an email Friday, regarding the long term plan or any temporary repairs that may allow vehicle weighs slightly more than the new five-ton limit.

Any short term repairs likely would increase the weight limit only up to three tons, or 15,000 pounds, Talbot said. While this would still preclude most large commercial traffic, it would allow ambulances to cross in emergencies.

Preparation work is currently underway for those repairs, according New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson Tanya Greer.

“The work will entail the replacement of a number of floor stringers under the bridge’s steel deck,” Greer said in an email Monday.

This work will require special coordination and training, as the deck is situated above the railway tracks at the Canadian end of the bridge, she added.

“Installation is anticipated to begin the week of Nov. 14 and should take approximately three weeks. During that time, one lane of the bridge will be closed to vehicles and traffic control measures will be in place,” Greer said.

Picard said he is expecting an economic boost to the town and region during construction, whenever it begins. The town manager also is anticipating a new bridge project will help spur continued downtown revitalization efforts.

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