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This 2006 photo shows the Piscataqua River Bridge (I-95) from the Maine shoreline on the Eliot-Kittery border. Completed in 1971 and opened to traffic one year later, the bridge had undergone a $14 million repainting in the early 2000's. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

CONNECTING THE NEW HAMPSHIRE AND MAINE TURNPIKES: The opening of the Maine Turnpike in 1947 and the New Hampshire Turnpike in 1950 created a bottleneck on Bypass US 1, a limited-access route connecting the two turnpikes, both of which at the time ended at traffic circles. Most of Bypass US 1 was (and remains today) a four-lane route with grade separations, but with driveway access. What created the largest bottleneck - particularly in the summer months - was the Maine-New Hampshire Lift Bridge, a double-deck truss bridge accommodating two lanes of vehicular traffic on the top deck and a single-track rail line on the bottom. (This span was renamed the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge in 1987.)

The designation of the New Hampshire and Maine turnpikes as part of Interstate 95 in 1956 exacerbated the traffic problems on Bypass US 1 leading to the two-lane span, especially since Bypass US 1 also carried the I-95 designation. This prompted transportation officials in the two states to seek a long-term solution to the bottleneck.

In 1962, the states of New Hampshire and Maine commissioned a study for a new I-95 alignment between the two turnpikes, including a new high-level Piscataqua River span. The new alignment, which was to have six continuous through traffic lanes (three in each direction), was to be routed to the west of downtown Portsmouth and Kittery, and include the following new interchanges:

  • EXIT 4 (New Hampshire): NH 16 / US 4 (Spaulding Turnpike) grade separation and ramps; replacing traffic circle movement

  • EXIT 5 (New Hampshire): Bypass US 1 grade separation and ramps; replacing traffic circle movement

  • EXIT 6 (New Hampshire): Woodbury Avenue; northbound slip ramp exit only

  • EXIT 7 (New Hampshire): Market Street; full-diamond interchange

  • EXIT 1 (Maine): Dennett Road / To ME 103; partial cloverleaf interchange

  • EXITS 2-3 (Maine): ME 236 / US 1 grade separation and ramps; replacing traffic circle movement

The original plan for the new Piscataqua River Bridge called for construction of a steel-arch span with a 125-foot clearance. However, after discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers, the port authorities of the two states, and the American Merchant Marine Institute, the state transportation departments decided to revise the design to provide 135 feet of clearance, which long had been the standard clearance for ocean-going vessels. A recent decision by Congress to deepen the river channel to 35 feet provided another argument for a higher bridge clearance.

BUILDING THE NEW BRIDGE: The Piscataqua River Bridge and I-95 relocation project began in 1966 with the condemnation of a number of properties on the Portsmouth and Kittery approaches. Actual construction on the bridge began in May 1968.

The centerpiece of the Piscataqua River Bridge is a 1,344-foot-long steel arch span that was the widest such span when it was built. The main span is flanked by two cantilever truss spans (one on each side); there also are 19 simple-girder spans on the New Hampshire approach and 14 simple-girder spans on the Maine approach. From approach to approach, the bridge measures just over three-quarters of a mile long. To ease congestion while providing an added measure of safety, continuous 10-foot-wide breakdown shoulders were provided on the bridge and approaches.

Tragedy stuck the site about midway through construction. On June 24, 1970, two of the I-beams supporting the staging area on the Kittery side of the span gave way, sending four workers 75 feet down to their death and leaving another seven injured. William Lorenz, a worker on the site who was rescued by firefighters, described the accident as follows:

I made a mad jump and grabbed a vertical beam. I shimmied up the thing about 15 feet until I reached a horizontal bar that I could cling to. Then I just hung on. I'm lucky to be alive. I don't know how I hung on."

Rick Portillo, an ironworker who worked on the bridge and years later in retirement built a balsa-wood scale model of the bridge, said there were less rigorous safety procedures - such as mandatory safety nets - at the time of construction.

Nearly all of the work on the superstructure was completed by the end of 1971, but work on the approaches continued for almost another year. On November 1, 1972, the two state transportation commissioners dedicated the new bridge and opened it to traffic. The Piscataqua River Bridge received an "Award of Merit" by the American Institute of Steel Construction in 1973 and one year later, the U.S. Department of Transportation called it the most outstanding new bridge in the nation.

A NEW LOOK: In March 2000, work began on a two-year project to remove old paint from the bridge's main arch and flanking cantilever truss spans and repaint them. Workers first removed the old green paint and the original dark lead paint (the original "red iron" from the fabrication site); much of the $14 million cost of the project was spent on paint removal and environmental remediation. The bridge was repainted in lead-free Dartmouth green. The project was completed in October 2001.

In 2005, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT), which maintains the bridge, installed security cameras at several locations. The cameras were installed not only as a security measure, but also to thwart potential suicides.

THE PISCATAQUA RIVER BRIDGE TODAY: According to the NHDOT, the Piscataqua River Bridge carries approximately 70,000 vehicles per day (AADT). On summer weekends, this figure often swells above well 100,000 vehicles per day.

This 2004 photo shows the northbound lanes of I-95 over the main span of the Piscataqua River Bridge. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

Type of bridge:
Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Length of main arch span:
Total length of bridge and aproaches:
Width of roadway:
Number of traffic lanes:
Clearance at center above mean high water:
Cost of original structure:

Steel arch
May 1, 1968
November 1, 1972
1,344 feet
4,503 feet
98 feet
6 lanes
135 feet
$55,000,000

SOURCES: Interstate Route 95: Location and Economic Study, New Hampshire Department of Public Works and Highways and Maine State Highway Commission (1962); "Debate on Bridge Won by Shippers," The New York Times (12/19/1966); "Four Workmen Die in Fall from Bridge," The New York Times (6/25/1970); "New Piscataqua Span," The New York Times (11/05/1972); "Piscataqua River Bridge and Approaches, Interstate Route 95," New Hampshire Department of Public Works and Highways, Maine Department of Transportation, and U.S. Federal Highway Administration (1972); "Project in the Spotlight: Piscataqua River Bridge," SSPC Certified News (Spring-Summer 2002); "Model Man: I-95 Bridge Rebuilt from Memory" by Richard Fabrizio, The Portsmouth Herald (4/20/2003); "Cameras on Piscataqua River Bridge" by Beth LaMontagne, The Portsmouth Herald (9/18/2005);"'Culture' Blamed at DOT for Hidden Hazardous Waste by Scott Brooks, New Hampshire Union-Leader (6/25/2007); Maine Department of Transportation; New Hampshire Department of Transportation; Cameron Kaiser; Alexander Svirsky.

  • I-95 shield by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightpost by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.

PISCATAQUA RIVER BRIDGE LINKS:

PISCATAQUA RIVER BRIDGE CURRENT CONDITIONS:

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