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The Public Works Department tried to make the Union Hill crosswalk safer by widening the sidewalk while pushing out the curb to slow down traffic.

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Crews seize the summer for outdoor projects

The Brattleboro DPW manages almost all the infrastructure in town from roads, to sidewalks, to wastewater lines, to the town’s new multi-million wastewater treatment facility. And a lot of it needs fixing.

BRATTLEBORO—Summertime is here, and the days are busy for the crew of Department of Public Works.

The department has approximately 14 projects lined up for the summer. If funding and the weather cooperate, most of the work will wrap by the fall.

Any time of the year, DPW has a full plate. Brattleboro’s aging infrastructure needs constant repairs.

“A lot of the town needs fixing,” said Water and Highway Superintendent Hannah O’Connell. “We just can’t get around to all of it.”

She described much of Brattleboro’s infrastructure — bridges, roads, water lines — as “failing.”

Brattleboro isn’t alone in this situation, she said.

Nationwide, the infrastructure of many municipalities is reaching the end of its useful life at the same time, she said.

Public Works Director Steven Barrett said that many of Vermont’s bridges and roads were built after a series of floods that hit the state in 1927, 1936, and 1938. The next big building push came after World War II.

In the postwar period, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the country experienced a public works building boom, O’Connell explained. The nation got its infrastructure, but not necessarily the ability or money to care for it, she continued.

Zip to 2015, and roads built to carry lighter Model Ts now carry tractor trailers, O’Connell said.

“A lot of this infrastructure has the same clock,” Barrett said.

Many of the chemicals used in snow removal are also more corrosive to concrete, added Barrett. Think of them as basically salt water.

This has led to an increase of corrosion in the Town’s wastewater system and bridges, he said.

DPW manages almost all the infrastructure in town from roads, to sidewalks, to wastewater lines, to the town’s new multi-million wastewater treatment facility.

Two budgets fund the department, said Barrett. The first budget of just over $1.5 million from tax revenues funds solid infrastructure like roads, sidewalks, and the activities that care for them, like paving and snowplowing.

The second budget pays for the more liquid side of DPW: water and the management of it. This includes the wastewater treatment facility and municipal water system. User fees fund this $5 million budget.

Some of the town’s larger buildings or businesses use more than 100,000 gallons of water a day, said Barrett.

Main Street sidewalks

Barrett pulls two brown expandable file folders from a shelf to check figures for the summer’s Main Street sidewalk project. The folders together are more than seven inches thick with documents and schematics.

Replacing the sidewalks on the east side of Main Street — the river side — is a substantial undertaking for the summer, said Barrett and O’Connell.

The 1,960-feet of sidewalk under construction will stretch from the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge near the Whetstone Brook, north to Walnut Street next to the Subway restaurant.

Workers won’t pull up all of the sidewalk, Barrett said. Making repairs or replacing a whole section will depend on the condition of the concrete.

The project is estimated at $600,000. Most of the funding will come through grants, said Barrett and O’Connell.

The town awarded the contract bid to Zaluzny Excavating Corporation, of Vernon, they said. The contract includes a 60-day “substantial completion” clause.

Work is anticipated to start Aug. 3, and finish by Columbus Day weekend, Barrett added.

Workers will focus on maintaining access to businesses and safe walking areas, added O’Connell.

Updating the sidewalks on the east side of Main Street was delayed long enough that many people assumed the work had been completed.

According to Barrett and O’Connell, the town first bonded for the project in 2010.

“It’s just been a series of follies,” Barrett said of the project’s delays and false starts.

Scheduling outside work in the downtown is a brain teaser, said O’Connell.

“It’s a pickle,” she continued. The weather must cooperate because concrete can’t be poured in cold weather. It’s better to avoid Strolling of the Heifers and Independence Day weekends. The department doesn’t want to inhibit the retailers’ sales.

O’Connell said the project will try to meet the needs of people with mobility issues as much as possible.

Once work starts, the department will send weekly updates to the town and the media, O’Connell added.

Union Hill and Cedar Street

The department completed improvements to the intersection of Union Hill, Western Avenue, and Cedar Street last month. The project itself was 10 years in the making.

Installing new signs is the only part of the project that remains.

DPW is still tabulating the project’s final costs, said O’Connell. She estimates the total will be under $20,000.

“Unfortunately with that project we were limited in the changes we could make,” said O’Connell.

The intersection does not form right angles, with Union Hill and Cedar Streets off center to one another. Union Hill itself is very steep. Nearby are crosswalks, a park, and an elementary school. Western Avenue is a primary west-east road to downtown.

According to traffic count data from last year, 800 vehicles pass through the intersection during a peak driving hour of 4:15 p.m., Barrett said at a public meeting.

Half those cars traveled from downtown, Barrett said. People traveling toward downtown accounted for about 35 percent of the traffic. Drivers coming from Cedar Street accounted for 8 percent and traffic from Union Hill totaled seven percent.

The intersection has had its fair share of accidents including a deadly hit and run last year.

To mediate some of the intersection’s tricky aspects, the department created bulb outs and green space to narrow the opening of Union Hill.

It also moved the crosswalk at the mouth of Union Hill farther into Western Avenue so drivers can see pedestrians more easily and drivers stopping on Union Hill no longer have to pull into the crosswalk to see traffic traveling east on Western Avenue.

The department also shifted Western Avenue away from the busy hill, east, towards Green Street. This change allows more separation between traffic and pedestrians.

Drivers would “gun it” to get up the 12 percent grade of Union Hill, said O’Connell. “And bang, the crosswalk is right there.”

A crossing guard who had witnessed too many near misses, suggested the department move the Western Avenue crosswalk away from the intersection, O’Connell said.

Annoyed drivers have called the department with complaints, she said. Most of the complaints seem to be from drivers who can’t dart straight from Union Hill to Cedar Street any longer.

DPW explored options before settling on a final design, said O’Connell. The intersection, unfortunately, is not a true four-way. Drivers can’t see each other clearly.

Installing traffic lights or four-way stop signs, and making Union Hill a one-way street were a few of the options explored.

Data collected on the intersection, however, showed that these changes would snarl traffic even more, especially during the morning and afternoon school runs, O’Connell said.

Green Street retaining wall

Governor Peter Shumlin announced June 23 that the town had received a $300,000 federal grant to repair the Green Street retaining wall.

The town closed the end of Green Street, called Green Street Extension, to traffic last fall. The 200-foot-long retaining wall showed signs of deterioration. A wide crack had formed in the road as the wall tilted outwards toward Harmony Parking Lot.

“The tallest middle section of the stone wall is leaning out by several feet and continues to move,” wrote Barrett in a memo. “It is, in our opinion, close to failure.”

Repairing the wall is estimated at $585,000.

Barrett said that the bids are due back to the town by Aug. 5. The town will award the contract on Aug. 18.

“We don’t know when that [wall] was built,” said Barrett, but town maps dating to the 1850s show the wall already in place, he added.

While Barrett can say that Arch Street is the oldest street in town, he doesn’t know the oldest retaining wall. Arch Street snakes past 51 Main St., then runs parallel to Main Street next to the railroad tracks and the Connecticut River.

“All the villages in Vermont are build on a hillside,” he said.

Barrett surmises that many of the engineers and stone masons who came to Vermont to work on the railroad moonlighted on retaining walls.

When possible, Barrett prefers to install dry stone walls, a technique used for the Green Street retaining wall.

In the Green Street wall’s case, however, the stone is soft and not very good, he said. The town would have to purchase new stones — a solution that’s not cost effective.

In most cases, however, a dry stone wall will last centuries, Barrett said.

Elliot Street bridge

Damage to the deck of the bridge connecting Elliot Street has reduced the 69-year-old structure to one lane. Drivers scoot around an 8-foot-by-10-foot metal plate covering a large hole.

“We’ve gotten one heck of a lifespan out of it,” said O’Connell.

Most bridges have an expected lifespan of 50 years, she added.

DPW first noticed a fist-sized hole in the bridge’s deck last winter.

In an attempt to assess the damage and make repairs, staff dug into the concrete, O’Connell explained. They intended to dig until they found stable concrete; they would then patch the hole.

Staff stopped digging when the hole reached almost 4-feet by 4-feet, she said.

“We weren’t sure when we’d get to that good, solid concrete,” O’Connell said.

State bridge inspectors have reviewed the bridge, Barrett said. So far things are okay.

“That bridge could get to the point where we shut it down,” Barrett added.

O’Connell said the bridge probably won’t receive repairs this summer. Preliminary design work is planned.

Barrett and O’Connell estimate repairing the bridge would cost over $1 million.

Other projects

The department has a number of other projects this summer. Roads might get the most attention from the public because those are the most visible projects, but much of the infrastructure the DPW cares for runs under the streets and sidewalks of town.

• Bonnyvale Road retaining wall: While estimates are still forthcoming, repairing the 100-foot-long wall is expected to cost between $20,000 and $30,000.

• Capital paving: The DPW has budgeted $300,000 for capital paving this summer. “Capital paving” is a catchall term for ongoing repairs and maintenance to the town’s roads and sidewalks. The department received a $75,000 grant from the state, said O’Connell. This will allow the DPW to complete $375,000 worth of paving.

• Black Mountain water tank: Final engineering for the 1-million-gallon tank will happen this summer. The department aims to complete the entire project this summer but it might need more time, said O’Connell. The estimated $1 million project will help, in part, with fire protection for the buildings, like World Learning, on Black Mountain Road.

• Replacing the Black Mountain pump station: Not to be confused with the 1-million-gallon water tank, the DPW is replacing the pump station with a gravity-fed sewer line. The sewer line will run under Interstate 91 and connect with a main line running near Putney Road. Barrett said that the initial drilling under Interstate 91 has happened.

Engineers will check the line’s slope next. A 16-inch sleeve will eventually contain an 8-inch sewer pipe. The sleeve acts as a placeholder in case the sewer pipe needs repair, replacement, or expansion.

Barrett has told the Selectboard at past meetings that the sewer line will save the town money over the long run. This project is the final phase of the Wastewater Treatment Plant project and will cost $960,700.

• Chestnut Hill Reservoir: DPW staff plans to complete routine maintenance on the reservoir and dam. According to O’Connell, the reservoir is not in use. Still, the department maintains the structure for safety and to remain compliant with state permits.

• Permanent repairs to a washout near South Main Street: The DPW will complete permanent repairs to a piece of eroded land near Morningside Cemetery, said Barrett, where some land washed out. The area eroded two years ago, he said.

While the department stabilized the land, more engineering work is needed. Staff will also oversee some site work to the sewer and water systems at the future Red Clover Commons off Old Fairground Road.

• O’Connell is working on installing a “drainage swale” between Wilson Woods and the Red Clover Commons site. A swale helps prevent erosion, she said. It is basically a stone-lined ditch that catches water run off.

• Green Mountain Power will continue replacing the street lamps — not the traffic signals — with more energy-efficient lighting, Barrett said.

• Staff need to replace a water line on Willow Street. They will also clean and line a water main on Frost Place, said Barrett.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #314 (Wednesday, July 15, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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