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AOT gets an earful

Public alarmed about bridge closure and state agency’s proposed 25-mile detour

GUILFORD—“How can this be addressed, knowing we’re not happy campers at all?” an attendee asked Agency of Transportation (AOT) officials at the public hearing on the Route 5 bridge replacement project, held on May 3 in the town offices.

The “this” she referred to was a 25-mile detour for anyone south of the Broad Brook Bridge trying to get north of it, and vice versa.

The project, scheduled for summer 2017, requires an estimated 28-day bridge closure, which means no vehicles or pedestrians will be able to cross it during construction.

The 25-mile detour the AOT drew up involves driving to Bernardston, Mass., and back, AOT Project Manager Rob Young and David Kull, design consultant for the project, told attendees.

A number of residents, including Guilford Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Jared Bristol, expressed alarm at cutting off emergency services from one end of Algiers to another. As Bristol noted at the meeting, “17 of our 36 [firefighters] live on the southern [side] of this bridge."

The fire station is on the north side.

In addition, many of Guilford’s ambulance drivers live on the south side of the bridge. Bristol expressed his concern with getting “a critically ill patient to [Brattleboro Memorial Hospital],” noting the hospital is on the north side of the bridge.

The AOT offered the 25-mile detour, which includes travel on Interstate 91 and U.S. 5, because they are allowed to use only state highways to create detours. Anything involving local roads is up to the town, Young told residents.

Although there are local roads that emergency vehicles — and residents — can use to get from one side of Guilford to the other, they are narrow, curvy, and will add too much travel time in an emergency, residents told AOT officials.

Young told attendees the Welcome Center gates weren’t an option because of an agreement the town signed with the state in 1997.

The AOT officials showed a slide of another gated emergency access ramp, the one connecting U.S. 5 and I-91, south of Algiers. This option is allowed.

They said the AOT will widen the sharp turn on the ramp so emergency vehicles can safely make the turn on and off the interstate, thus avoiding a trip to Bernardston.

That wasn’t enough reassurance for some residents.

When an attendee asked Young how the AOT managed this concern during other bridge and road closures, Young said some towns utilized mutual aid or parked a fire truck on the other side of the bridge.

“Even with mutual aid, it’s going to be longer,” resident Catherine Fournier noted.

When another resident suggested parking an ambulance next to the fire truck on the south side of the bridge, Bristol said, “we could park all the equipment you want down there — it’s the people who run it” who can’t access it.

“You can’t do that [detour] loop and expect drastic things not to happen,” said one attendee, who added, “I can put that on my tombstone, right? ’Killed By The Bridge.’"

Bristol suggested the AOT contract for a walkway across the bridge, open to emergency responders only, for the duration of the bridge closure.

“Even get[ting] a stretcher across the bridge” to a waiting ambulance will potentially save lives, Bristol said.

“We need to have something pre-planned,” he told the AOT officials.

Young said there was currently nothing in the construction contract about an emergency-only walkway.

“Doesn’t this need to go in the contract now so contractors know what they’re bidding on?” asked Justin LaRock, of Bernie LaRock & Son Construction.

Young told LaRock the adjustments would “push the project back” because of negotiating rights-of-way.

“This is what we asked for ... back in 2013,” LaRock countered.

“We’re saying this is important enough to explore and you to examine,” said an attendee, adding that if it costs more money “and it’s going to delay it, so be it, because we’re talking about public safety and taking care of ourselves as best as we can."

“We will tell the contractors to work with emergency services,” Young said.

In a follow-up conversation with the bridge project’s Public Outreach and Community Coordinator Jill Barrett, Barrett cited cost and time as barriers to implementing an all-access walkway across the brook during construction.

But, Barrett said, “what [the AOT] is working on is a way to provide access for fire department and emergency responders to get across the Broad Brook... using contractor access.” The AOT is building the emergency-access requirement into the new bid package, she added.

“The access will not be for the general public,” she said.

Barrett noted emergency vehicles can use the I-91 and U.S. 5 emergency ramp south of the village and the turn-around in the interstate’s median just south of the ramp.

When asked what residents can expect from this point on, Barrett said the next public hearing will be in late winter or spring, once the AOT has awarded the bid to a contractor and is ready to introduce them to townspeople.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #358 (Wednesday, May 25, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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