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.

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