Case Study: Public Involvement and The Sagadahoc Bridge, Maine Department of Transportation

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The 0.56-mile Sagadahoc Bridge, completed in 2000, carries U.S. Route 1 across the Kennebec River between the Town of Woolwich and City of Bath in Sagadahoc County, Maine. The new bridge replaces the two-lane Carlton Bridge, opened in 1927. The new bridge, the first design-build project ever undertaken by the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), provides four traffic lanes, a six-foot wide breakdown/bicycle lane, and a six-foot wide barrier-protected sidewalk. "(You're) able to walk shore to shore. It's a milestone," said Phil Pinkham, Construction Manager, MDOT. The bridge also provides 75 feet of vertical under-clearance for river traffic and boasts the longest pre-cast concrete segmental span (421 feet) in North America.

Snapshot of Sagadahoc County
  • County Population: 35,214
  • City of Bath: 9,266
  • Town of Woolwich: 2,600
Source: 2000 U.S. Census; Town website

The MDOT chose the design-build method over the traditional design/bid/build process because of the need to expedite the project. With $38 million in federal funding set to expire if not committed by October 1997, there was not enough time to design and construct the replacement bridge using the traditional process. Using design-build would move the completion date up by 18-24 months.

The use of the design-build method presented challenges to MDOT and the local community regarding public involvement. As MDOT's first design-build project, there was no framework for public participation in a design-build context. The expedited project schedule gave rise to early community concerns about aesthetics, thus necessitating a forum for involving the public. Among the initiatives to meet these challenges were the creation of a local advisory committee, MDOT's hiring of a public relations firm and the use of a design charrette to elicit public involvement in the aesthetics of the project.

What Happened

Advisory Committee Formed Prior to RFP Release

To address local community concerns about potential visual and aesthetic impacts, maintenance and protection of traffic during construction, and traffic circulation after completion, the Bath City Council created the Bath Bridge Advisory Committee (BBAC). The BBAC consisted of property owners, businesses, non-profit organizations, Council members, a planning commissioner and a representative of the Town of Woolwich. Technical support was provided by the City Manager, Planning Director, Public Works Director, Police Chief/Harbormaster and two consultants. BBAC Members were chosen to represent various constituencies in the community. For example, the museum and historic society were included for their concerns on the aesthetic characteristics of the bridge and its effect on the historic character of the area. The Bath Iron Works was represented because the shipyard is a significant generator of traffic and is located immediately adjacent to the bridge site. A local cannery owner was included because his boats regularly traverse the Kennebec River in the vicinity of the bridge site.

Bath Bridge Advisory Committee
  • Bath City Council Members
  • Planning Commissioner
  • Local business persons
  • Chamber of Commerce
  • Maine Maritime Museum
  • Historic Preservation Society
  • Town of Woolwich
"(The BBAC) was created early in the process to represent residents of Bath and Woolwich. It served as an intermediary between local people and MDOT officials." Phil Pinkham, MDOT, Times Record, 2/9/98

The Community Helped Select the Design-Build Contractor

Following the review of qualifications submitted in response to a national advertisement, MDOT invited four design-build contractors to submit proposals. The proposals were evaluated by a scoring committee comprised of local residents, the BBAC, MDOT staff, a University of Maine professor, an environmental advocate and Federal Highway Administration division staff. A representative of Texas DOT was also involved in scoring proposals, as MDOT was seeking an outside opinion. The BBAC and local residents served specifically on sub-committees evaluating the proposals for their attention to community impacts and aesthetic issues. One resident stated that their participation in the evaluation led them to consider the new bridge to be "their" project.

Advisory Committee Was Directly Involved in Project Aesthetics

Community involvement in the aesthetics and design of various aspects of the bridge helped create more local interest, fostered community buy-in, and ensured that the new bridge reflected the needs and historic character of the area. This resulted in the local community "sharing ownership" of the bridge project. BBAC decisions directly influenced the design of the bridge. For example, the RFP issued by MDOT incorporated an aesthetics "wish list" created by the BBAC including suggestions for the desired height, color, texture and lighting of the bridge. The BBAC was not fond of the standard light fixtures traditionally used by the agency, so MDOT gave the committee a catalogue of lighting products from which they chose fixtures.

The BBAC influenced numerous elements of the bridge design. The BBAC voiced the need for an underpass, approved by MDOT, to facilitate pedestrian and bicycle access to the bridge from the Town of Woolwich. The BBAC provided comments on the bridge sidewalk and pedestrian railing, and sought to maintain the historic character of the Customs House, located immediately upstream of the new bridge, The BBAC chose a particular type of landscaping and sidewalks. The BBAC also made the decision to give plaques on the bridge honoring those who created the 70-year old bridge, to the town and city for display at a location of the municipalities' choosing. "Committee members feel a strong sense of ownership for the final decision and final product. Often times they thank us for allowing them to be part of the process," said Phil Pinkham, Construction Manager, MDOT.

"The importance of our involvement and our involvement in a timely way can't be overstated. The (BBAC) is bringing up issues which if addressed properly will make the construction period less disruptive to citizens, tourists, business people, everyone. And, will make the finished product something that we can all live with and perhaps even be proud of," said Jim Upham, Bath City Planner, in a memo to the Bath City Council, December 1996.

MDOT Hired a Firm to Handle Communications

A professional public relations firm was hired to manage public communications and media relations services for the project. Rather than incorporating the firm into the design-build team, MDOT contracted directly with them in order to maintain oversight on all public outreach activities. At project start-up, a news conference was held to announce the beginning of the project and introduce key personnel and the identifiable project logo, designed to help the news media and public recognize incoming project information. The public relations firm coordinated with MDOT on a biweekly basis throughout the life of the project. The firm facilitated the flow of information between MDOT and the public and the media regarding the project.

A Variety of Outreach Tools Were Employed

Communication and community involvement tools employed to inform the public included direct-mail newsletters, a dedicated project website featuring construction updates, a toll-free information hotline, press releases, and cable television programs. Public outreach events were held to increase awareness and encourage participation, including public forums, open houses and public tours of the project site. A project display was created for MDOT's annual legislators' open house. Banners, posters, a slide show and information packets highlighting the project, the design charette and BBAC meetings were developed.

A particularly unique initiative of MDOT was the creation of an in-school program to educate area children on the history of the Kennebec River crossing and the construction of the new bridge. A slide show was produced and presentations were given to all local schools by MDOT's project manager. Over 600 students were reached. In addition, MDOT made presentations to more than 15 community-based civic and public organizations.

A Design Charette Helped Engage the Community in the Design Process

Design Charrette

A design charrette serves as a forum for introducing the project to the community, exploring needs, and identifying design solutions. Workshop participants were asked to brainstorm about the design and aesthetics of the bridge and their ideas were collected, organized, and presented to the BBAC and MDOT for evaluation.

The design-build contractor held a design charette, inviting local residents to discuss their aesthetic preferences regarding the bridge. Although not required in MDOT's RFP, the contractor included the charette to encourage community involvement and provide the public with the opportunity to select certain features of the bridge.

This was the first time a design charette was held in the State of Maine. Media invitations were mailed, advertisements were placed in local newspapers and fact sheets were created to inform the public about the design charette. Informational posters were designed and posted at local businesses and public areas, and a website featuring information about the charette was created.

The charette, attended by 35-40 residents, gave the community an opportunity to brainstorm and actually vote on their preferences in the following areas:

  • Bridge pier column texture
  • Concrete protective stain color
  • Sidewalk concrete patterns and colors
  • Landscape plantings
  • Aesthetic bridge pier lighting
  • Lighting fixture style
  • Finished color of the bridge
  • Exterior treatment of abutment retaining walls
  • Bridge railing styles

A menu of choices was presented to community residents for consideration of the various designs, textures and colors, and residents were enthusiastic about engaging in this process. As a result of the charette, residents took ownership in the project and felt they had a strong stake in defining how the new bridge would look.

Image of the new Sagadahoc Bridge from the east bank of the Kennebec River.
The new Sagadahoc Bridge from the east bank of the Kennebec River. The old Carlton Bridge is in the background. The bridge deck lighting, bridge pier columns and other aesthetics were chosen by community residents.

Choosing the Name of the Bridge

Naming the bridge was a joint effort by the town and city. First, the public was invited to submit prospective names to the Bath City Clerk or Woolwich Town Clerk. A naming committee, comprised of five persons from each municipality (appointed by the Woolwich Board of Selectmen and Bath City Council), narrowed the field down to six choices. Large jars, labeled with the candidate names, were placed in public buildings. Residents were encouraged to vote for their preferred name by putting a penny into the corresponding jar. In the end, the name chosen was "Sagadahoc", meaning "mouth of river". The City Council of Bath and the Board of Selectmen of Woolwich confirmed the choice, and once approved by the State Legislature, Sagadahoc Bridge became the official name.

Public Outreach Efforts Continued During Construction

MDOT and the public relations firm continued to keep the public informed during the construction phase of the project. The project website and toll-free information hotline were updated weekly with information on detours, lane closures and other delay-causing activities. Press releases to the media also kept the public abreast of construction activities, and one local paper ran a construction update column for the duration of the construction period. Due to these efforts, construction activities received widespread media coverage. The public was so excited about the bridge construction that motorists were causing congestion by slowing down to take a look; in response, MDOT installed free-of-charge viewing binoculars at a nearby park so visitors could have a safe and close up view of the construction site.

Lessons Learned

Empower the public in decision making.

Public involvement in determining the scope of the RFP as well as the scoring of proposals for aesthetic and community impact issues gave residents the sense that their input was directly influencing the process. While decisions concerning bridge location and alignment were decided by MDOT, public involvement in aesthetic issues furthered community "buy-in".

"The public involvement process, both through the BBAC and the design charette allowed residents to make some choices that were important to the community, such as what the bridge was going to look like. Those who participated in the process enjoyed this and felt it was a lot of fun. The finished project was a lot better because of this process-allowed for community buy-in to the finished product and resulted in no surprises, " stated Halcyon Blake, BBAC member, resident and Bath City Council member.

Pay attention to feedback and respond to community needs.

Knowing that the public was sensitive to the design and aesthetics of the bridge, MDOT and the design-build contractor undertook to consistently inform, involve and educate the public from the beginning. Forums were provided for ensuring an ongoing dialogue, including the BBAC, public presentations, in-school programs and the design charette. The charette, in particular, gave the public the opportunity to influence specific aesthetic elements of the bridge.

Understand the value of continuing to inform the public during the construction phase.

MDOT knew that construction and the resultant congestion, detours and delays would impact residents' daily lives, so the agency endeavored to keep the public informed. The use of a public relations firm gave a timeliness and professional quality to project events and informational materials, and ensured that media attention was focused on the construction. These efforts gave MDOT credibility in the community and local media and demonstrated that quality of life issues were of concern to the agency. Beyond simply informing the public of potential impacts and delays, MDOT cultivated the community interest by providing a safe place from which to view the construction site - further fostering local "ownership" in the bridge project.

You can't make everybody happy.

Although there were numerous community involvement opportunities, some persons were still dissatisfied with the project. Following completion of the bridge, negative comments regarding the new lighting fixtures were expressed by a local resident to both The Times Record newspaper and to MDOT officials. MDOT responded immediately by explaining that local residents were involved in decision making, including the scoring of contractor proposals, choice of lighting fixtures, and the selection of other aesthetic features. Despite this response - and the fact that another citizen who had participated in the design charrette came to the defense of MDOT in his own letter to The Times Record - the resident was still not satisfied. This illustrated to MDOT officials that although they worked hard to engage the public, there was still a chance that some residents could feel that their voices were not heard. Addressing such concerns will require a renewed commitment to defining the affected communities and tailoring involvement techniques to reach them.

Challenges Ahead

At the outset, MDOT recognized the importance of incorporating public input into their first design-build project. Incorporating responsive project management and professional communications tools, the Sagadahoc Bridge project has set the standard for future design-build projects, and MDOT must sustain the level of public awareness and involvement to ensure similar successful results.

As a follow-up to the Sagadahoc Bridge project, MDOT may wish to evaluate their public involvement efforts, with an eye to improving their methods for future projects. MDOT could also share with the greater community how their fellow residents did influence the project and how MDOT incorporated community needs and suggestions into the final product. An increase in awareness among residents that their community was significantly involved in the project may increase participation and awareness levels for future projects. MDOT is in the process of producing a video that discusses the public involvement on the project.

Phil Pinkham
Construction Manager
Maine Department of Transportation
16 State House Station
Augusta, Maine 04333
Phone: 207-287-2485