Allison Teague/Commons file photo
A 2013 protest on the Vilas Bridge. Bellows Falls residents have long advocated for the span's repair, but New Hampshire has not been as keen on fixing it.
Originally published in The Commons issue #395 (Wednesday, February 15, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.
BELLOWS FALLS—No one’s been able to use the Vilas Bridge since 2009.
But the 635-foot-long span still has its champions, as evidenced by a new resolution introduced last week in the Vermont House.
Sponsored by four Windham County legislators, the resolution claims officials in New Hampshire — which owns most of the bridge — have shown “wanton neglect” in failing to repair the structure. And it urges the Granite State to “make every possible effort, on a timely basis,” to find state or federal funding for the job.
“The state of Vermont has gone out of its way to work with New Hampshire, but instead of partnering, they have turned a deaf ear,” said Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, one of the resolution’s sponsors.
But it doesn’t appear New Hampshire officials are feeling pressured to take action.
“Given the financial constraints of the [New Hampshire Department of Transportation] and the growing number of bridge needs across New Hampshire, the Vilas Bridge is not a priority given the proximity of the nearby Arch Bridge,” said Bill Boynton, a department spokesman.
Vilas Bridge dates to 1930. It was financed partly by grants from Rockingham and Walpole, N.H., the towns that the span connects across the Connecticut River.
The House resolution notes that the bridge “became a direct gateway into downtown Bellows Falls from neighboring New Hampshire.” And it remained busy many decades later: In 2009, when the bridge was closed by New Hampshire officials due to deterioration, it was carrying about 4,600 cars daily.
“Now, those vehicles are having to seek alternate routes,” said Kevin Marshia, chief engineer for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
As New Hampshire officials note, the Arch Bridge is still open and spans the Connecticut River a short distance to the north. But that bridge doesn’t dump drivers into the heart of Bellows Falls, as the Vilas Bridge had.
Trieber said he and Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, “have heard routinely from constituents the concerns surrounding this bridge closure.”
“Downtown businesses can document their loss of sales, and town and village officials have shown concerns related to public safety,” he said.
Shane O’Keefe, interim municipal manager for Rockingham and Bellows Falls, said passing trains frequently block river-crossing traffic at the Arch Bridge. And he echoed Trieber’s concerns about commercial impacts, saying the Arch Bridge makes it more difficult for drivers to patronize those businesses.
“It’s not an easy way in and out of the downtown area,” O’Keefe said. “The [downtown] community has made tremendous strides over the years, but it’s been a challenge.”
Vermont officials, however, say they can’t solve the problem due to the fact that Vermont owns only 7 percent of Vilas Bridge. The other 93 percent of the structure belongs to New Hampshire, because that state’s official boundary stretches to the low-water mark on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River.
Given that ownership ratio, “a similar percentage of the repair costs should be the Granite State’s responsibility,” the House resolution says.
The document also cites a 1994 memorandum of understanding between the Federal Highway Administration and New Hampshire officials. That agreement recognized the bridge’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places and also “guaranteed long-term maintenance in accordance with New Hampshire’s 10-year highway program,” the resolution says.
But no improvements have been made since the bridge was shut in 2009. That’s in spite of lobbying by Vermont officials, along with local activism that included a mock reclamation of the bridge staged by activists in 2014.
“We’ve been dealing with this for years and years, trying to make sure New Hampshire lived up to its end of the bargain,” O’Keefe said.
A few years ago, VTrans and New Hampshire transportation officials discussed a possible compromise: Vermont would cover the up-front cost of rehabilitating the bridge — a price tag that’s been estimated at up to $6 million — and eventually would be paid back via New Hampshire’s performing additional work on other jointly owned bridges in the region.
That proposed deal “didn’t go anywhere” at the time, Marshia said, but it’s apparently not a dead issue.
“We revisit the topic on a regular basis,” Marshia said. “We have a strong partnership [with New Hampshire], so we do talk with them regularly.”
He added that “any agreement, if it were to happen, would be subject to legislative approval.”
There doesn’t appear to be an agreement pending, however. And Boynton said Vilas Bridge isn’t in New Hampshire’s latest 10-year transportation plan, which covers 2017 to 2026.
That plan is updated every two years, Boynton said, and it is “a financially constrained document that identifies the needs that best align with the priorities of communities, the Regional Planning Commission and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.”
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, said he signed on to the Vilas Bridge House resolution because “it is frustrating to have the project continue to slip down the New Hampshire projects list.”
Along with Trieber, Partridge, and Deen, Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, also supported the measure. It was introduced Feb. 7 and referred to the House Transportation Committee.
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