DOT’s Keith Cota Served as Agency’s Public Face for Memorial Bridge Replacement
Replacement of the Memorial Bridge, which connects Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, has been consistently making news since it closed to vehicular traffic two years ago. Front and center throughout the replacement process has been Keith Cota, an SEA member and project manager with the Department of Transportation.
We sat down with Cota – who as the public face of the project appears often in media reports – as the opening date approached to talk about the bridge.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Memorial Bridge is one of three that cross the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth into Kittery. The other two are the Interstate 95 bridge and the troubled Sarah Long Bridge, which is up next for replacement. Because the Memorial Bridge, which links downtown Portsmouth and Kittery, allows for bike and pedestrian traffic (and not just for people), along with vehicles, it is seen as vitally important. Owing to that importance, there’s been a huge amount of community interest in the project. Cota said this was problematic in the first stages of the project as the DOT sought a team to design and build the bridge, because much of that information was confidential.
“The public was dying for information, wanting to know who was coming forward to build it and what their designs were,” he said. “The Portsmouth Herald was initially writing articles seeking information, and saying that the DOT wasn’t communicating. We ended up meeting with the editors and told them that once we’ve selected a team, we could be more open.”
As the project progressed, officials made use of the interest by forming a public outreach group, which was broken down into subcommittees that handled things like marketing and design aspects. In that way, the public helped drive some of the features of the bridge.
“We brought in schematics of the bridge, and one of the concerns that came up related to the sidewalks,” Cota said. “There were concerns that the truss members were blocking the view of the river, so the idea came in that we could do what we call ‘belvederes,’ basically pedestrian bump-outs. We said we could do it, and the idea really caught on.”
The belvederes are located on each span of the bridge, and provide a view of the entire river. That kind of “localized improvement,” as Cota put it, provided no structural benefit, but ended up included because “it’s something the community wanted.”
Another thing the community pushed for through the outreach group was aesthetic lighting, which came with a price tag of around $200,000. Cota said that while the DOT liked the idea, it couldn’t afford to spend money on it. If the group wanted the lighting, they’d have to raise the money for it.
“Bang, just like that, they took on the chore and raised $260,000,” Cota said. “As a result, Portsmouth agreed to administer the cost of that and the cost of the lighting over the long term. Now we’re adding the lighting to the structures.”
Cota thinks the bridge will continue to draw interest from the technical community, as well as locals, because of its innovative design. The new bridge does away with the standard gusset plates, the metal pieces that along with rivets help connect bridge girders.
“This is actually one of the first bridges in the country to be built without gusset plates,” Cota said. “I expect that the DOT is going to be recognized because of this bridge. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this become more of a standard design across the country for these types of bridges.”
Cota said he appreciated the opportunity to be involved in a project as impactful as this one.
“It’s professionally rewarding to understand that the input I have into a project is going to be long-lasting, and advance highway safety,” he said. “Personally, I think we at the DOT make sure we leave a project far better than it was before, in terms of safety, whether it’s a road or a bridge.”
With funding for the DOT remaining an issue, Cota stressed that keeping our roads and bridges safe is extremely critical.
“If we had poor roadways, would we still seek the economic impact from tourism that we see?” Cota asked. “I don’t think we would.”
Beyond economics, Cota said it’s a legitimate safety threat that could result in higher numbers of severe accidents.
Despite the funding challenges, Cota said he’s received compliments on our roads in his work with a national highway safety organization.
“When I host meetings here, I always get the same comments: ‘what nice roads you have, how do you do it with such a limited budget?’ ” Cota said. “We stretch it,” is his typical answer.
Ultimately, Cota said, those compliments shine a light on the efforts of the entire agency.
“We have some fantastic, professional staff that’s willing to go the extra mile,” he said.
“This organization is fantastic to work for. The can-do attitude is everywhere.”