NEWFANE—On a 0 to 9 scale, the Arch Bridge rates a 4, meaning it is considered in poor condition.
Selectboard members discussed the condition of the historic span and the status of the project during a visit from two representatives from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) at the May 18 Selectboard meeting.
The Depot Road bridge, which spans the Rock River at the intersection of Grimes Hill and Dover roads, was built in 1908 and is considered the top historic concrete arch bridge in the state.
Jennifer Fitch, scoping project manager, and Carolyn Carlson, structures project manager, presented the development process for the project, which now requires that the town solicit comment from the public.
“Most bridges are an 8, even when new,” she said, noting that 9 was the highest rating a bridge could receive. “Zero is like the bridge doesn’t exist. It’s in the water.“
The bridge is shedding its concrete. Fitch said that “the original arch is in poor condition” and the spandrel wall is not connected to the arch in some places.
Although a 4 rating does not connote an emergency, the bridge is in danger of deteriorating further, and “when we get to a 3, we look to take the bridge out of service,” Fitch said.
As it is, Fitch “wouldn’t allow people to be right under it” for recreation, such as swimming.
Selectboard Chair Todd Lawley assured Fitch that the town has “got signs on both ends of it now” warning against swimming or walking beneath the bridge.
The estimated cost to replace the bridge is $2.5 million, but because the federal government covers 80 percent of the project, the town share will only be $125,000, as long as the town agrees to close the road during construction.
Replacing the bridge is a priority for the town but, according to the AOT, the project is scheduled for the construction season in 2020.
Safety trumps history
The bridge is currently a one-lane structure, and many townspeople want to keep it that way.
But the AOT recommends widening the bridge and making it two lanes, with two 10-foot travel lanes and two 3-foot shoulders.
Fitch and Carlson presented pages of data in a PowerPoint presentation detailing the AOT’s studies of why a double-lane bridge makes more sense from the perspective of safety.
But changes in state requirements exist in tension with concerns surrounding aesthetics and historical accuracy. Because the bridge is historically important — a February engineering report describes it as “a bridge of exceptional historical significance” — there are rules dictating its appearance, including the type of materials used, even when it is replaced and not refurbished.
Fitch noted that safety trumps historical concerns.
The current bridge’s railing comes to a height of only about 10 inches from the surface of the road, unacceptable under current design standards and inadequate for protecting pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.
State design standards call for railings ranging from 28 inches to 42 inches, depending on the speed limit of the bridge and its design.
“The town can’t choose rail height,” Fitch said.
The new required railing height will present some challenges.
Drivers turning right or left from Grimes Hill Road heading east onto the bridge could not easily determine if cars, bikes, or people were coming across the bridge heading west.
To illustrate, Fitch and Carlson showed two separate films with simulated views of traffic flow on the Arch Bridge as a one-lane and a two-lane bridge.
With a one-lane bridge with regulation railings, collisions are almost guaranteed. With a two-lane bridge, travelers going east and west have their own respective lanes.
Fitch and Carlson said they were not at the Selectboard meeting to tell the town how to decide on how the new bridge should look or how many lanes it should have.
“We just present the information,” Fitch said. “No work is going to be done until the town signs off on it. We’re giving you safety and engineering data.”
“When the town makes its decision, then we send you the conceptual plans,” Carlson said.
She explained the next steps: the AOT will give the town preliminary plans and permits, then the agency assists the town with the right-of-way process.
Carlson also said distributing the conceptual plans for public comment were a necessary part of the process, and the town needs to request a public informational meeting.
Plus, the town will be responsible for choosing and establishing a detour route during construction.
“I think the community needs to think about the future,” Carlson said. “When they built that bridge in 1908,” most people traversed it via “horse and buggy,” she said. “They didn’t think about today.”
She said townspeople should take this opportunity to “think about your children and grandchildren.”
Deborah Lee Luskin attended the meeting and commented on the project. She told the Selectboard she feels “passionate about a single-lane bridge,” and safety is her concern, too.
She thinks it’s okay for people to stop at the stop signs posted at the three-way intersection on the east side of the bridge, and “go 25 mph, as it’s posted, through a half-mile village, and not kill any pedestrians.”
“What are the traffic-calming alternatives if we go to two lanes? Will people go 40 mph through the village?” Luskin asked.
“Human nature loves to go fast,” she said. “If you make it possible, people will go 50 mph through the village.”
Given that the bridge sits on the route that is the main shortcut between Dummerston and Brattleboro, and West Dover and Wilmington, speeding is already a problem through Williamsville and South Newfane, even at the posted 25 mph speed limit.
Fitch responded by mentioning a traffic-calming study she completed with Windham Regional Commission Senior Planner Matt Mann.
“I’d narrow the lanes to 9 feet in width,” she said, noting that “lane width determines speed,” and narrow lanes promote slower driving.
The AOT representatives urged the town to make a decision, in light of the bridge’s condition and the estimated five-year delay between the town making its decision and construction beginning.
“If the bridge deteriorates further, we can get the project pushed ahead,” Carlson said, “but no sooner than two years.”