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The Commons
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Safety primary concern in
hastening Vilas Bridge repair

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Originally published in The Commons issue #43 (Friday, September 4, 2009).

BELLOWS FALLS—Following an August meeting between town officials from the town and Walpole, N.H. and lawmakers from the two states, Selectboard Chair Tom MacPhee and Development Director Francis Walsh have expressed reservations about the prospects for repair of the Vilas Bridge.

The two represented the town at a meeting to consider options for the 635-foot span, which links the two communities and their two respective states. Vermont owns 7 percent of the bridge, while New Hampshire owns the remaining 93 percent.

The bridge was closed March 19 to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic after years on the “red list."

Inclusion on the list means “more frequent inspections due to known deficiencies, poor structural conditions, weight restrictions, or the type of construction,” according to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) in its 10-year plan.

But the bridge, which carried a “sufficiency rating” score of 3.1 percent, had been on the list for 20 years and was deteriorating rapidly.

A semi-annual inspection of the 1930 open-spandrel reinforced concrete bridge found “continued deterioration of the reinforced concrete bridge deck,” according to a press release issued in March by the NHDOT.

After convening at the Vilas Bridge, participants at the Aug. 18 meeting moved to the town offices in North Walpole, N.H. to discuss the history of the bridge, options for repair and/or rehabilitation, funding, and safety concerns.

“Our interests and concerns in seeing the Vilas Bridge tended to are centered on safety,” said Francis Walsh, the town’s development director.

Traffic woes

Town officials remain concerned about the consequences of straining the resources of two other bridges in town due to the closing of the third.

With traffic diverted to two nearby bridges over the Connecticut — the New Arch Bridge in Bellows Falls and the Westminster Bridge to the south — officials say that the increased traffic opens a raft of new problems.

“Washington, D.C. doesn’t understand that we can’t safely use either the New Arch Bridge or the Westminster Bridge,” Walsh said.

He noted the Arch Bridge “has tracks that run across one end, creating an enormous safety issue. The Westminster Bridge has an overpass that can’t take anything over 13 feet tall.”

And congestion creates its own set of problems, with vehicles taking as long as 20 minutes to get across in peak traffic. The New Hampshire DOT estimates 4,600 vehicles crossed the Vilas Bridge daily.

At the Aug. 18 Selectboard meeting, MacPhee told his fellow board members that he “did not get a good feeling” from the meeting.

“People get angry with the significant wait,” Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo told The Commons in response to MacPhee’s report. “[I’m] hoping it doesn’t take a tragedy or serious accident before something is done.”

“It is almost impossible making a left hand turn into the Village,” DiBernardo later clarified, pointing out that drivers have improvised new traffic patterns and habits in response.

“They have also been making another lane to turn right where there is none,” she said.

In response, Municipal Manager James Mullen has instructed Police Chief Ronald Lake to assign an officer at the bridge during peak traffic times to ease the flow starting Aug. 25.

DiBernardo listed another concern — “the worst-case scenario where a train would be crossing the tracks at the same time traffic was at its heaviest and a fire happened in No. Walpole or Walpole,” she said.

“If a ladder truck was needed it wouldn’t be able to get there in time,” she said. “It would have to travel to the underpass in Westminster, losing very valuable time."

MacPhee said that taking a look at traffic patterns and perhaps establishing a right-hand-turn lane “on our side of the bridge” might help alleviate some of the congestion in the meantime.

Mullen has appointed a committee to take on the issue, with former Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Lamont Barnett leading the group.

New Hampshire repairs delayed

A 1994 memorandum of agreement among the Federal Highway Administration, the New Hampshire State Historic Preservation Office, and the New Hampshire Dept. of Transportation commits the state of New Hampshire to restore the bridge.

According to Mark Richardson, administrator for the New Hampshire DOT Bridge Design Bureau, the state’s 10-year plan calls for the bridge repairs, at one point scheduled for 2008, to go to bid in 2015.

“I expect the full design process to take two to three years, depending on issues that may arise during these efforts,” he wrote in an Aug. 7 e-mail to Walsh.

But given “the significant [budget] issues facing the states of Vermont and New Hampshire, and their respective transportation departments/agencies, it will likely be a struggle for this project to remain in 2015,” Richardson warned Walsh.

Walsh pointed out that “consultants are due to begin studies this fall on the bridge to determine all aspects of fixing or rehabilitating the Vilas Bridge. We should know something by spring."

The 10-year plan for New Hampshire’s road repairs, revised every two years, will next be subject to public scrutiny at meetings this fall, which could affect the bridge construction schedule.

According to records of April meetings between New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s respective transportation departments, Richardson warned that $3 million has been allocated for a project that would require an estimated $6 million to $8 million.

According to Walsh, the 1994 memo agreed to the historic significance of the Vilas Bridge, and the DOT “committed to work toward the long-term maintenance of the Vilas Bridge with in-kind construction."

Walsh doesn’t know if the memorandum of understanding is legally enforceable, “but it’s something we’re willing to look into."

Legislative urges

The delay has provoked response in the form of a joint resolution in the Vermont Legislature introduced by state representatives Michael Obuchowski, Carolyn Partridge, David Deen, and Michael Mrowicki.

In 2004, Obuchowski and Partridge sponsored a resolution to urge the immediate repair of the bridge. In 2006, the state, in the form of another resolution, urged New Hampshire DOT to move forward with the project in 2007.

In the current legislative message to its neighboring state government, lawmakers point out that Vermont’s sole U.S. representative, Peter Welch, secured federal stimulus money for repair of a similarly deteriorated bridge in the Chittenden County town of Richmond. The 14-point resolution calls on New Hampshire’s federal delegation to pursue similar sources of federal money.

Legislators argue that the bridge “joins these municipalities into a single social and economic community within the Connecticut River Valley."

The resolution calls the bridge’s ranking on New Hampshire’s list of transportation-project priorities “indefensible given the traffic congestion and economic hardship its closure may precipitate and the department’s ranking of this span on its danger list for over two decades."

The House has approved the resolution, which remains in the Senate Transportation Committee.

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