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Transportation officials oppose recreational lanes for international bridge

MADAWASKA, Maine — Municipal officials from Madawaska and Edmundston are disappointed to learn that Maine transportation officials oppose their proposal to add recreational lanes for snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to the design for a new international bridge being planned.

Last January, municipal officials from the neighboring border communities signed a joint resolution to work together to push state and provincial transportation representatives for a downtown location for the new bridge and for a design that would allow for “foot and recreational traffic.”

Due to concerns about the structural integrity of the bridge built in 1921, Maine and New Brunswick transportation officials one year ago imposed a reduced weight restriction of five tons on the existing span, effectively halting all heavy commercial traffic across it.

While plans already had been in the works to upgrade or replace the bridge, which already is about 20 years beyond its anticipated lifespan, the newly discovered structural issues also prompted officials to push up the timetable for a resolution.

In February, officials with the Maine and New Brunswick transportation agencies, engineering consultants and other representatives from U.S. and Canadian federal agencies unveiled plans to build a new bridge extending from the existing span’s current location in Edmundston and ending about 1,300 feet up the St. John River from the existing port of entry in Madawaska.

During a press conference in October, officials from both communities expressed the desire to include in the bridge design separate recreational vehicle lanes for snowmobilers and ATVs. The new bridge will include a passageway for pedestrians, but the municipal officials argued that the economic and cultural ties of both communities would be enhanced with the addition of recreational vehicle lanes.

“[The lanes] represent a huge potential for economic development,” Edmundston Mayor Cyrille Simard wrote in a blog post in October.

A spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation said Monday, however, that agency officials do not support the project idea, though they “understand the significance” of the use of snowmobiles and other recreational vehicles to the St. John Valley.

“The department must balance the scope and cost of each capital project with the many other infrastructure needs throughout the state,” said Ted Talbot, press secretary for MaineDOT.

While Simard said in his blog post that Edmundston and Madawaska are both working on developing a system of recreational networks, Talbot said Monday that there is currently a lack of snowmobile trails that connect to downtown Edmundston or Madawaska near the bridge.

Talbot also said that only 211 Canadian snowmobiles were registered in Maine last winter for all the Canadian Provinces, according to data he received from the Off-Road Recreational Vehicle Office in Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

“There is nothing worse than decisions that are made by people who do not live, or even know, our reality,” Simard said in his post in October after first learning that transportation officials might not support the proposal.

Madawaska Town Manager Gary Picard said that Simard’s post was “on point” and that the two communities have not given up hope, but will still be working together to push this agenda.

“There is an economic case for the region,” Picard said. “We’re making the point that MDOT typically [focuses on] the transportation of cars from one side to the other, but in this case they have a responsibility to accommodate all modes of travel to make the bridge safe to use. We feel that safety is paramount.”

Meanwhile, another argument that Talbot made against the proposed recreational lanes, which would be located next to the pedestrian walkway, concerns the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The narrow travel lanes, lack of shoulders, and the combined sidewalk and recreational-vehicle trail introduces both safety issues and conflicts for person with disabilities,” Talbot said. “The combined sidewalk/snowmobile trail is also problematic as current Americans with Disabilities Act regulations require snow removal on sidewalks during the winter months.”

However, Talbot said the department was exploring the possible options to allow snowmobiles to use the shoulder as an “access route.”

“These [options] might include widening of the five-foot shoulder to provide additional room for snowmobiles and/or alternative surface treatments to address pavement damage from snowmobile carbides,” he said.

While Picard said they are dealing with an “aggressive timeline,” the two communities are still working with a “window of opportunity” to make their wishes heard. Talbot also said that there would be future opportunities for area residents to  give their input at additional public meetings in 2019.

“If our new bridge is like the old one, it will define the relationship between our two communities for the next 100 years,” Simard said. “We can not wait another 100 years before we can meet today’s needs.”

In an email on Nov. 27, Simard declined further comment beyond his blog post stating that “at this stage since we are still discussing with various Canadian and U.S. stakeholders on this very specific issue and evaluating options, etc. …  I haven’t received any official communication from Canadian authorities regarding this.”

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