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N.H. House tries again to make Vilas Bridge a priority

Can Vermont fund $2.5 million to repair span to Bellows Falls?

BELLOWS FALLS—The New Hampshire House Public Works and Highway (HPWH) Committee met Tuesday to discuss the fate of HB 1205, a bill proposing a 50-50 split of the roughly $5 million that is the estimated cost to repair the now-closed Vilas Bridge.

Current costs are split at $4.65 million for New Hampshire, and $350,000 for Vermont.

New Hampshire owns all bridges spanning the Connecticut River, and is responsible for all but 3 percent of their costs in maintenance and upgrades.

Like all states, New Hampshire is having a hard time coming up with costs for a project that is not seen as priority, with two bridges linking Bellows Falls and Rockingham with Walpole, N.H.

The Vilas Bridge, closed in 2009, has been on and is now off the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s “Red List,” a list that prioritizes transportation and highways projects around the state.

Two bridges — one several miles south of Bellows Falls at Westminster Station, and the other, the Arch Bridge at North Walpole — serve as access to Vermont across the Connecticut River.

But Vermont Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles told The Commons of discussions to help finance the repairs to the Vilas Bridge.

“[In] ongoing discussions between Commissioner Clement and myself (with others involved, as needed) it became clear that no action can be taken on any agreement until the project is added back to the New Hampshire 10 Year Plan and that will apparently require action by the New Hampshire Legislature. We will continue working toward the end over the summer and fall in hopes of making progress in the next session,” Searles said.

N.H. Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chair of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, said that the smaller issue of getting the Vilas Bridge fixed has the larger issue of getting all the bridges owned by New Hampshire along the Connecticut River funded for repairs and maintenance.

While the Vilas Bridge is being addressed individually, the committee is taking up alternatives to funding bridge repairs around the state.

It is also examining HB 1202, which mandates a study to find alternative ways to fund state highways and bridges.

Campbell said that individually addressing the Vilas Bridge through HB 1205 has brought these concerns to the fore and have them considered for possible solutions.

The main thing in making it all work, he said, is to get the Vilas Bridge back on the next 10 Year Plan, and then negotiations with Vermont can start yielding results.

The bridge was not included on the current 10 Year Plan, which runs through 2016. Campbell said that hearings will begin in the fall to get projects such as Vilas Bridge on the next plan. Ideally, he said, construction would start in 2017.

Campbell said the Keene-based Southeastern Regional Planning Commission will hold the first public hearing this fall, adding that communities pulling for the work would need to make their voices heard so that the project “can bubble up and be considered” for the next 10 Year Plan.

“It would be good for the people on the New Hampshire side in communities, chambers [of commerce], and the business community to get involved in the planning process,” he iterated.

Following Tuesday’s hearing. N.H. Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, who is the vice chair of the HPWH committee, said that the committee heard testimony from Reps. Cynthia Sweeney, D-Charlestown, Mario Ratzki, D-East Andover, and Mark McConkey, R-Freedom.

Sweeney testified that if money were available she would like to see it go into fixing Route 12, Cloutier reported. He also said that the hearing was continued until Aug. 19, when representatives from NHDOT would be there, as they had been unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Cloutier speculated that the recommendation from the committee for HB 1205 to continue to legislation for next year’s session would not be forthcoming. Instead, he said, it makes more sense to try to get the bridge back on the 10 Year Plan in 2016. He said regional hearings would likely start in the fall of 2015 in that regard.

Cloutier said that although he hoped Vermont and New Hampshire would split the costs evenly, he also would support an alternative plan: Vermont paying costs for the bridge up front, and New Hampshire paying it back in repairs and maintenance to other bridges along the Connecticut River.

In any event, HB 1205 will leave committee one way or another when legislators meet in August.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #260 (Wednesday, June 25, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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