BRATTLEBORO—Staff from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) brought good news to town on Dec. 15.
Thanks to AOT’s asset management program, part of a Federal Highway Administration mandate, the state will repair the deck of the Elliot Street bridge this summer.
The bridge sits in a busy section of town that connects downtown and Canal Street. On one side of the bridge is the junction of Elliot Street, Union Hill, Williams Street, and Flat Street. On the other side of the bridge, Elliot Street, Frost Place, and Holden Street converge.
According to AOT, approximately 4,800 vehicles cross the bridge daily with 640 crossing during peak times.
AOT will replace the deck — the surface cars drive on — for approximately $600,000. The town is required to pay 2.5 percent of the project’s cost, in this case, approximately $15,000.
“That’s a bargain, I’m bringing you a bargain today,” AOT Project Manager Jennifer Fitch told the Selectboard.
Fitch explained that most agency bridge projects take two to five years. The state, however, has placed the Elliot Street bridge in an accelerated program. AOT seeks to complete the project within five months.
Fitch’s news, along with being a bargain, was also a welcomed gift. Department of Public Works staff had previously submitted multiple — and unsuccessful — grant applications in hopes of funding repairs to the 69-year old bridge.
DPW restricted travel over the Elliot Street bridge to one lane last year after a hole formed in the deck now covered by an eight-foot by 10-foot metal plate.
The damage came to light last winter.
In an attempt to make repairs, DPW staff dug into the deteriorating concrete with the intention of digging until they found stable concrete and then patch the hole.
Staff stopped digging when the hole spanned almost four-feet by four-feet.
In an interview with The Commons this summer, DPW Director Steve Barrett and Water & Highway Supt. Hannah O’Connell estimated repairing the bridge could cost more than $1 million.
As part of their evaluation process, AOT staff investigated three alternatives for dealing with the bridge: do nothing, deck replacement, patching the hole.
Patching and “do nothing” alternatives were ruled out quickly in favor of replacing the deck, said AOT staff.
According to Fitch, most of the Elliot Street bridge is in good shape.
The state rates bridges on a scale of zero to nine, with nine being a bridge in perfect shape. It’s rare that a bridge that receives a nine, even when brand new, she said.
The Elliot Street bridge’s substructure, the infrastructure that holds the bridge up, has a rating of six, Fitch said. That’s satisfactory. The town can expect another 30 to 40 years of good use out of those parts of the bridge.
The bridge’s “superstructure” — such as the beams holding the deck — has a seven rating, Fitch continued.
The deck, however, is at three, she said. “That’s a problem.”
While the bridge is still safe, that low rating for the deck means repairs must happen, Fitch added.
Also, replacing the deck is considered preventative maintenance, she said. “That’s much more cost effective than replacing it [the bridge] in its entirety.”
Along with replacing the deck, AOT will also replace the bridge’s historic railing.
Fitch said the current railing lacks the strength to keep a car from skidding through and into the Whetstone Brook.
Fitch said AOT will install a replica railing that mimics the historic look with an iron rail at the top but with a concrete base strong enough to stop vehicles.
By state regulations, she added, the Elliot Street bridge is too narrow. The new deck will have an extra one-foot and nine inches of width to allow for a little more bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the shoulder. The five-foot wide sidewalk will remain.
AOT staff and Town Manger Peter Elwell have collaborated on arranging to move some overhead utilities in preparation for construction. The state, however, will not seek any right-of-way allowances, which normally add months to the project’s timeline.
The board and AOT staff briefly discussed whether to keep the bridge open during construction or close the bridge completely and detour traffic. AOT staff advocated for closing the bridge completely for safety.
“We can do the closure any time you want,” Fitch said. “So we’re flexible on our end.”
Construction is expected to take four to eight weeks.
“We’re confident we can get it done in eight weeks,” Fitch said.
Board members approved closing the bridge after the school year and posting detour signs.
Elwell said that few school buses travel that part of the road, but “a good volume of children walk this route to school.”
Board member John Allen said, “I just want it done.”
Fitch warned the board of one potential hang up for the project: northern long-eared bats.
“We can’t have bats roosting on this bridge,” she said.
A new state regulation has named long-eared bats as endangered. A fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has hit Vermont’s bat population hard, killing thousands.
Fitch said she’s working closely with her colleagues overseeing environmental issues to monitor the bridge for bats. This process usually happens in the summer.
AOT’s asset management program was unknown to the board.
Board vice-chair Kate O’Connor asked Fitch how AOT chose the Elliot Street bridge.
Fitch said she didn’t know. Some AOT staff are assigned to monitor bridges to see if they’re a fit for the asset management program. The bridge could have come to the program’s attention through a variety of sources such as the state’s bridge inspection program.