View from bridge is stunning when elevator is running
PORTLAND, MAINE >> The elevator serving the world's tallest bridge observatory on the Penobscot River has inconvenienced more than 200 passengers on 20 separate occasions by stranding them and forcing them to trudge down 25 flights of stairs, according to state documents.
But the state Department of Transportation says the elevator is completely safe and that those incidents account for a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of passengers who've enjoyed the attraction since it opened in 2007, offering stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and Maine's islands and forests.
"We get the occasional complaint from a passenger who was impacted by having to exit via the stairway but we get far more praise," said the MDOT's Rick Dubois, who's responsible for the elevator.
The glassed-in observation deck with panoramic views opened to the public nine years ago following completion of the $84 million Penobscot Narrows Bridge that carries U.S. Route 1 traffic across the Penobscot River between Verona Island and Prospect, about 117 miles northeast of Portland.
Touted as a "crown jewel of coastal Maine," it's a popular attraction for travelers headed to Acadia National Park and eastern Maine, with more than 50,000 visiting annually.
Maine's tallest elevator lifts passengers 42 stories — higher than the Statue of Liberty — and was constructed with the latest safety features, officials said. If the elevator breaks down, visitors have to walk down stairs that exit outside on grounds well above the observatory lobby where they caught the elevator.
The length of the elevator shaft, the sensitivity of the safety sensors and Maine's harsh elements have all combined to cause niggling problems for the attraction that operates during Maine's busy tourist season between May and October, according to the MDOT.
Bouncing children — including one dancing "Gangnam style" — accounted for some of the dozens of elevator shutdowns. Generally, the elevator was out of service for only minutes and there was little inconvenience.
According to state transportation figures provided to The Associated Press, there were more than 130 reported anomalies, which an independent consultant says is a high number. Many glitches were fixed by resetting switches or rebooting the computer, while others necessitated repairs, state spreadsheets indicated.
The total cost for maintenance and repairs reached nearly $400,000 — covered by ticket revenue collected by the Friends of Fort Knox, which operates the attraction, Dubois said.
Andy Kohl, from The Elevator Consultants in Chicago, said the numbers surprised him, both in terms of frequency of repairs and out-of-pocket expenses. The state spent enough on repairs to buy a new elevator, he said.
"The numbers of calls and the amount of money don't jibe with a system that's newly installed. This thing is less than 10 years old," said Kohl, who spoke in general terms because he's not familiar with the specifics of the elevator system in Maine.
The performance has improved since repairs in 2009 and 2012 replaced corroded electronics and sealed them to keep out moisture, Dubois said.
Overall, he's satisfied with the performance.
But the problems have been frequent enough that there's a sign posted in the lobby so riders can review procedures for an "unanticipated delay."
Unless the delay exceeds 60 to 90 minutes, passengers are urged to stay put and enjoy the view. Snacks, water and a portable toilet are provided.
The Department of Transportation would prefer to have visitors wait rather than walk down stairs that lead to U.S. Route 1, requiring officials to stop traffic. The risk of someone being injured in a fall on the stairs is far greater than any concern with the elevator, Dubois said.
Kristi Blair of nearby Orland, who's visited the observatory twice, said she wouldn't hesitate to ride the elevator again.
"When the elevator doors open, you look immediately out. It's all glass. It's a beautiful view," she said.
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