Friday, May 24, 2013
AUGUSTA'S WATER STREET TRAIN TRESTLE
AUGUSTA -- All dispatchers had to say were two words: "truck" and "trestle."
Four truck accidents during the last nine months are seen at the train trestle on Water Street in Augusta. The accidents happened Nov. 14, 2011, bottom right; Jan. 11, 2012, bottom left; Feb. 14, 2012, top left; and July 19, 2012, top right.
Staff file photos by Joe Phelan and Andy Molloy
Augusta police Sgt. Christopher Massey knew where right where he was heading, and he knew he would be there for a while.
Despite numerous signs warning drivers of the low clearance, the train trestle on Water Street has taken its own toll on a number of big trucks that have tried to pass underneath. Each accident can entail thousands of dollars in expense and hours of disrupted traffic. No serious injuries have been reported in any recent cases.
So notorious is the bridge for wiping out trucks that city officials have even given it a nickname, as if it were an Old West gunslinger.
"We call it the Can Opener," City Engineer Lionel Cayer said. "It's a reoccurring problem for us."
State law requires signs to warn drivers whenever an underpass clearance is less than 14 feet, 6 inches. Clearance under the Water Street train trestle is 12 feet, 10 inches, according to numerous signs that dot the landscape around the area.
Drivers who fail to notice those signs tend to pay the price.
Massey said police were called to the area 16 times between July 20, 2011, and July 20, 2012, to redirect traffic for drivers who noticed the bridge at the last minute and needed help backing up. Police were called to help another 14 drivers during that same time period only to find the trucks were gone by the time they arrived.
Trains have not crossed the trestle for years, which leads some to wonder why it is not removed to prevent the accidents from happening in the first place. However, the trestle is protected by state law, said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, which owns and maintains it.
"It is something that we have to maintain, as we do with all rail lines," Talbot said. "We do that with the expectation that the lines will be used in the future."
Regardless of how many scowls they must endure from inconvenienced motorists, the truck drivers who still can back up are the lucky ones. At least four trucks have hit the bridge during the last year, resulting in damages and big traffic delays.
The most recent of those occurred July 19 when a partially loaded box truck heading south on Water Street hit the trestle with such force that it dislodged the box, trapping the truck underneath. That section of Water Street was closed for about an hour, but one lane was closed for about four hours.
"It took a long time," Massey said.
He said most of the accidents over the years have occurred during the day, when there are more trucks on the road; and most affect traffic for hours. Police must be on scene throughout the cleanup process, Cayer said.
"It takes a lot of resources from the Police Department that are already scarce," he said.
A badly damaged truck is just the beginning of the heartache for the driver. Police always issue the driver a summons charging him or her with exceeding the bridge height limit. The fine for the offense $310.
The accident also is reported to the Maine State Police's Commercial Vehicle Division, which typically sends troopers to examine the truck and the driver's paperwork. That could lead to another fine, Massey said.
Those fines almost certainly pale in comparison to the fee from the tow truck company, which Massey said could be about $10,000, depending whether the load must be transferred and how tightly wedged the truck is and how much effort it takes to get it free.
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