2012-10-12 / Front Page

Text solves bridge woes

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Thousands of vehicles cross the Casco Bay Bridge every day between Portland and South Portland. But when the bridge is up, it can provide major traffic delays. South Portland resident Justin Levesque hopes his new service, which sends a text message to subscribers before the bridge is raised, can help ease the traffic headaches for drivers. (Courtesy photo) Thousands of vehicles cross the Casco Bay Bridge every day between Portland and South Portland. But when the bridge is up, it can provide major traffic delays. South Portland resident Justin Levesque hopes his new service, which sends a text message to subscribers before the bridge is raised, can help ease the traffic headaches for drivers. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – Justin Levesque lives in South Portland and commutes to Portland nearly every day. That means the University of New England pharmacy student has to use the Casco Bay Bridge twice a day. And that had caused Levesque a few headaches when the bridge goes up and backs up traffic.

So Levesque decided to take matters into his own hands and provide some relief for bridge commuters from South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Portland.

He launched a new website, CascoBayBridge.com, on Monday, Oct. 1, that allows someone to sign up for text message alerts sent out a few minutes before the bridge is scheduled to be raised during periods of heavy traffic.

Subscribers to the service pay $7.99 per year for the alerts, which are sent about five minutes before the bridge is raised if it happens in the middle of the morning or evening commute: weekdays between 7 and 9:30 a.m. or between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.

The person who receives the text then has the option to “change their behavior,” Levesque said. They can stay at home an extra few minutes to wait out the traffic, run an extra errand or switch to an alternate route.

Currently, there are signs with flashing lights in both South Portland and Portland about a mile from the Casco Bay Bridge that alert commuters the drawbridge is up. But Levesque said by the time most drivers get there, it’s too late.

The Maine Department of Transportation owns and operates the Casco Bay Bridge. Levesque said although workers try to avoid putting the bridge up during rush hour, the first day the service was live it went up at 8:45 a.m. and 3:50 p.m.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the MDOT, said there’s nothing it can do to avoid putting the bridge up during periods of heavy vehicular traffic.

“Marine traffic does and will always trump vehicular traffic due to Coast Guard regulations,” Talbot said.

“We get about an advance notice of 20 minutes prior to a tanker coming in that it will be time to lift that bridge. That can happen at any point at any time day or night.”

That position is consistent across any state’s department of transportation, Talbot said, because it is mandated by the federal government.

Levesque is intentionally vague about how he gets the notification that the bridge is going up to send out to his subscribers. The U.S. Coast Guard notifies the MDOT a tanker is moving through 20 minutes before it arrives at the Casco Bay Bridge, according to Talbot. About 15 minutes later, Levesque’s service sends a text out to subscribers.

“There’s technology involved, and it involves pulling public information that is available to anyone, then doing something to that information,” Levesque said. “I was in a unique position to take advantage of the public information.”

There aren’t many services like his around the rest of the United States, Levesque said. In Sammamish, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, the Washington State Department of Transportation offers a text and email alert service for subscribers when a drawbridge goes up. But that service is run by the state, not a private citizen.

The idea for the service came to Levesque back in 2008, and his decision to act on it came about through a combination of frustration and entrepreneurial determination.

He recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, which provided the inspiration to go through with the idea he had come up with years earlier. Levesque started working in January to set up the service.

The frustration came to a head last year, when Levesque was driving his daughter to a morning doctor’s appointment in the Back Cove neighborhood of Portland. The drive there from his home off Broadway usually takes about 15 minutes, but because the bridge was up, and Levesque had to sit in traffic for 20 minutes, he ended up arriving late to the appointment.

Nearly every commuter who frequently uses the Casco Bay Bridge is likely to have a similar version of that story, some probably have experienced that frustration dozens of times. There’s nothing that the bridge operators can do when a slow-moving tanker is coming through the area, but Justin Levesque hopes he can ease some commuters’ pain.

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