Last week, just in time for Independence Day, city and state dignitaries cut the ribbon on a new memorial to our veterans — one that does double-duty as a vital, more sustainable transportation connection across the harbor. Portland's new Veterans Memorial Bridge, which connects Portland's West End to the Ligonia and Cash Corner neighborhoods of South Portland across the Fore River and is now open to traffic of all kinds, is a handsome addition to the city's architecture.
The new bridge replaces a 1950s-vintage structure built during Portland's ill-fated entry into the automobile era. That older bridge was hostile to bikes and pedestrians, with a narrow sidewalk that dead-ended at a freeway ramp, in addition to plagues of car crashes and maintenance problems. It was a piece of Atomic Age infrastructure, unloved and crumbling away in the 21st century.
The new bridge has been built to last at least a hundred years, with a design that accommodates the possible addition of light rail or streetcars. For the here and the now, the most striking feature of the new bridge is its wide, separated lane for walkers and cyclists, facing south towards Portland Harbor. This pathway is part of a new link that extends through the harborfront industrial area in South Portland to Main Street — a 2-mile-long off-street path for human-powered transportation between Portland and South Portland. A memorial plaza dedicated to the branches of the armed services and the Merchant Marines marks the bridge's gateway into Portland, and ensures that the new bridge honors veterans in more than its name alone.
View New Veterans Bridge Pathway in a larger map
The quality of the bridge's design was largely the product of committed local advocates who demanded better architecture and more sustainable design. At early planning meetings in the project's conceptual phase, highway engineers from the Maine Department of Transportation in Augusta scoffed at the idea that they should build a new bridge for anything other than cars.
In the end, though, the decision wasn't really theirs to make. The freeway spur they wanted to build would have been more expensive, and there was no political will to pay for it. Instead, local decision makers and bridge contractors from Reed and Reed worked with advocacy groups — including the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, the Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and the Portland Society for Architecture — to come up with a more versatile design that was more sustainable, did more to honor our veterans, and cost less.
At last week's opening ceremony, people had a chance to enjoy the bridge for a few hours before the main lanes opened to motorized traffic. Veterans marched across under a perfectly blue summer sky while a parade of bikes followed behind.
A local official marveled at how far the final product was from the Department of Transportation's initial plans. "Three years ago, we were in a meeting room yelling at the state engineers to give us a simple sidewalk," he recalled. "And now..." He gestured at the bridge, and the crowds of people enjoying their new vantage on the harbor. I saw his point. Thanks to hard work by committed advocates, participating in our city's rewarding civic community, the new Veterans Bridge is more than a simple road, or a mere memorial — it's a lasting symbol of our cities' civic pride.