A year and a half after the Memorial Bridge was closed, severing Route 1 — the main artery for traffic between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine — the first section of a new span was eased into place on Tuesday.
With helicopters hovering overhead in a clear and cool winter sky and more than 100 rubberneckers looking on, two smoke-belching tugboats eased the new 300-foot-long southbound span into place between reconstructed piers around 9:30 a.m. at dead low tide.
Many of the onlookers held cameras and telephones at arm’s length to capture the delicate moment for posterity, perhaps mindful that two tugs already had sunk in the tricky Piscataqua River currents over the last year while the previous bridge was disassembled. Both tugs were refloated and nobody was injured.
“What they are doing is incredible. Imagine moving such a heavy piece of equipment on moving water and putting it in place where every inch counts,” said Arnie Silverstone, a retired Federal Aviation Administration inspector from North Hampton, N.H., who was among those watching. Silverstone said he visited frequently as the old bridge was dismantled and removed for scrap. “I find it fascinating.”
The new bridge section put in place on Tuesday was constructed on a barge berthed on Port Authority Pier. With the new section in place, the work crews will begin to construct the 180-foot tower that will support one side of the bridge’s center span, which lifts to allow ships to pass below.
The barge returned to State Pier, where the second of the three bridge sections will be constructed.
The Memorial Bridge carried Route 1 across the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, for 88 years. The creaky, rusting structure was closed to traffic on July 27, 2011, because of safety concerns. It carried 140,000 vehicles a day and as many as 170,000 during the summer.
“Businesses on both sides of the river have suffered,” said Portsmouth Mayor Eric Spear, who was among the onlookers. “We have a shuttle bus that takes passengers across and there is another bridge, but it is not the same thing. Memorial Bridge is the only one that allows for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
On the upside, he said, “at least the builders [Archer Western Contractors] have used a lot of local labor.”
The new bridge will have dedicated bicycle lanes heading north and south. It is projected to cost $88,782,000, with about half paid by the federal government and the remainder split between the states of Maine and New Hampshire.
In addition, a committee of local activists is trying to raise the $80,000 necessary to illuminate the bridge.
The new bridge is expected to be open in July. Then attention will turn to the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, another Portsmouth to Kittery structure that lifts to allow river traffic to pass. It was built in 1939 and is deteriorating, and needs extensive repair or replacement.