Bridge inspector Jamie Hannum inspected which bridges need to be up-to-date. Augusta bridge photo by Ramona du Houx


By Ramona du Houx

In August Governor John E. Baldacci inspected the Augusta Memorial Bridge with engineers from the Maine Department of Transportation and asked to be taken on a catwalk tour under the bridge.

“These bridges are safe,” said Governor Baldacci, after speaking with John Buxton, MaineDOT’s lead bridge maintenance engineer, and Scott Harris, the State’s lead bridge inspector of twenty-six years. “I wanted to see firsthand what it is the engineers look for and better understand the job that they do. They’ve done a great job reacting to a terrible tragedy and making sure our bridges are safe. I was comforted by the expertise of the workforce and their commitment.”

The Augusta Memorial Bridge is one of six “deck truss” bridges in Maine, which are of the same structural type as the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in August. Upon hearing of the collapse, Harris called into the DOT to find out how he could help reassure the people of Maine.

All of Maine’s deck truss bridges have now been re-inspected. The rating is nine points. Only a new bridge gets a nine; a year-old bridge an eight. Augusta received a six, due to a need to repaint the structure.

“It’s in good shape. Things were as good as we would expect,” said Buxton. “I want to stress that all of these bridges are safe.”

On August 2nd Governor Baldacci signed an executive order directing MaineDOT to review its bridge inspection program to ensure it continues to meet or exceed all applicable federal standards.

“We’ve looked at the bridges to make sure they’re safe,” said Baldacci. “Now we’re going to inspect the inspection program and make sure it’s as effective as possible.” The governor promised that after a full review of the recommendations, he would give the DOT the tools they need to make sure Maine’s bridges remain safe.

Maine has over 3,700 bridges, of which about 1,500 are more than 50 years old. During the Depression in the ’30s, there was a massive employment scheme to put people back to work; that’s when a lot of the state’s bridges were constructed.

Only 14 bridges are replaced annually; the state would like to do at least 32.

“Safety comes first,” said Commissioner David Cole. “With over 3,000 bridges in Maine, we have an aggressive inspection program.”

According to Harris, there is not a workday that goes by when a bridge somewhere in Maine is not inspected. Inspectors document the joints, plates, trellises, and other areas of the structure with a digital camera when they walk the catwalks, or they inspect using a crane and then make a detailed report of their findings.

Bridge inspector Jamie Hannum explained that they constantly upgrade the bridges with new technologies.

“We actually like it when we find something that needs repair,” said DOT bridge inspector Scott Harris. “That’s our job.” Like detectives, they search out problems. They look at everything that could have an effect on the health of the bridge. In one instance, salt caused erosion on the Augusta Bridge. The inspectors pointed to a funnel that was put in place to move the grit from the roads off the bridge, stopping the erosion.

“When we identify a problem, we work together and find an appropriate solution,” said bridge inspector Jamie Hannum, who is also a member of the DOT’s dive inspecting team. “Most of the damage happens underwater.” Currents and storms eat away at the foundations of the bridges, pulling the dirt out from under a bridge, which could lead to a collapse. The dive team works in all seasons. After large storms, they become part of the state’s emergency response team.

These dedicated workers understand all too well the responsibility placed on their shoulders.

“We take ownership of our work,” said Hannum. “Working together with people you enjoy being with is a great plus. We are a team.”

“We’re lucky that we have the expertise of such well-qualified engineers,” said Baldacci.