FORT KENT, Maine — Work has begun on the new $13.9 million international bridge connecting Maine to Clair, New Brunswick.

Fredericton-based construction company Caldwell and Ross LLC moved heavy equipment to the New Brunswick side of the construction area three weeks ago, and preliminary groundwork is under way.

“We figured we needed a good, early start on things,” company president Paul Demerchant said Friday afternoon. “We wanted to get the heavy equipment moved in before the roads were closed down for the season.”

Like Maine, New Brunswick posts roads limiting heavy truck traffic in early spring when the ground begins to thaw.

“If we had not gotten in, we may not have been able to start until June 1,” Demerchant said.

The activity is welcome news for residents who have been forced to deal with detours and delays since the Maine Department of Transportation posted weight limits on the current bridge almost three years ago.

“There is some dirt flying [and] they are doing some apron work to get a head start on [things],” DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said Friday.

In all, four bids were submitted for the second part of the multiphase project, according to Bernard Hache, communications director with lead agency the New Brunswick Department of Transportation. Two bids were from New Brunswick-based companies, one was from a Maine-based firm and one was from a company in both countries.

Right now, workers are preparing the site for the first of several concrete abutments that will support the new span over the St. John River.

“We might get stopped for a bit if the river floods this spring,” Demerchant said. “But by this time next year we should be placing the first steel beams across the river.”

The new bridge will be located 15 feet downriver from the current structure. Last year the Fort Kent Masonic Lodge building was demolished to make way for the construction.

About 1,900 vehicles travel on the bridge daily, according to a DOT study, and in 2009 the agency determined wear and tear on the 730-foot-long steel truss-style bridge was making it unsafe for the existing traffic flow.

That summer both countries posted the bridge, restricting heavy truck traffic to one truck at a time on the span and using a system of lights and detours to control the traffic.

“The lights and detours are working reasonably well,” said Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager. “It’s that or a 40-mile round trip.”

The next closest point of entry between the two countries is 20 miles down the St. John River between Madawaska and Edmundston, New Brunswick.

“I would say there is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel,” Guimond said. “We have been working all year to get to this point.”

The new four-span, steel-beam bridge will be 25 feet wider than the existing one and includes three in-river piers and two abutments. The multimillion-dollar contract is being shared evenly by Maine and New Brunswick.

Bidding on the access ramp on both sides and for the demolition and removal of the old bridge is expected to go out next year.

Officials on both sides of the river say construction is expected to be complete and the new bridge open in August 2014.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.