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The half of the old steel I-91 bridge still standing, right, carries both northbound and southbound traffic while the new, concrete bridge is built.

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After delays, $60M I-91 bridge project nears completion

BRATTLEBORO—Crews are expected to soon link the two cantilevered halves of a new Interstate 91 bridge in Brattleboro, marking a “significant milestone” in the years-long, $60 million project.

In similar fashion, the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the project’s lead contractor have bridged their differences over significant construction delays by reaching a settlement that will save the state nearly $1.4 million.

Taken together, the developments signal that the high-profile highway job is nearing completion. Officials say northbound traffic should begin flowing over the new span in March 2017, with all four lanes open by the end of June.

“Severe winter weather could impact our schedule,” said Caleb Linn, project manager for lead contractor PCL Civil Constructors Inc. “However, we do not anticipate delays at this time.”

PCL is tackling two adjacent bridge projects simultaneously: The company is replacing the relatively small I-91 bridge over Upper Dummerston Road and also building a new, 1,036-foot-long interstate bridge over Route 30 and the West River.

That structure — the result of a 2012 design process that included public input — has been labeled “A Bridge to Nature.”

’Nothing easy about it to build’

Standing on the bank of the West River recently, VTrans Resident Engineer Eric Foster pointed out curves and arches; carefully formed piers designed to look like native stone; and viewing platforms mounted on each of those piers.

“There’s nothing easy about it to build,” Foster said.

That difficulty has been borne out in the project’s schedule. PCL started work in 2013 and initially had expected the bridge to be finished in late 2015. In March of that year, however, VTrans announced that the job was about a year behind schedule.

The delay has been blamed on factors including permitting holdups, harsh weather, difficult digging, and manpower shortages.

In January, VTrans was projecting that the bridge would be done by the end of this year. That was subsequently bumped to 2017, though state engineers say that has little to do with how things have gone during the current construction season.

“Some of the delays that we experienced early on just pushed us to the point where we are today,” said David Hoyne, director of the transportation agency’s Construction and Materials Bureau. “I would say that construction this year went really, really well in terms of production and quality.”

The extended schedule has had an impact. There have been occasional lane closures on Route 30 and periodic traffic backups on the interstate, given that northbound and southbound I-91 traffic is restricted to one lane each on the portion of the old bridge that is still standing.

Also, VTrans closes the Exit 3 on-ramp during particularly busy weekends. While that helps ease pressure on the interstate through the construction zone, it also reroutes large numbers of vehicles through downtown Brattleboro.

“It’s gone on longer than anybody has expected,” Hoyne said. “But the community has been outstanding. They’re at the table. They work really well with us.”

The state and PCL had issues to work out, as well. State officials expected compensation in the form of “liquidated damages” for the project delays, while the contractor had claimed some issues — like site conditions — were beyond its control.

A clean slate

After much negotiation, the two sides reached a settlement that “wipes the slate clean of all of [PCL’s] claims against VTrans,” Hoyne said. The contractor will absorb additional costs associated with schedule-related issues, he said, and the contract value — meaning the amount the state pays PCL — has been reduced by $1.375 million.

Also, there is a “no-excuse completion date” of June 27, 2017, Hoyne said. That’s when all four lanes of traffic must be on the new bridge, though additional site work and demolition of the old bridge will continue past that date.

Linn said he couldn’t comment on the settlement with VTrans. But he noted that PCL is set to soon close the 11-foot gap that remains between the two halves of the bridge — a task that requires careful alignment high above the West River.

“Completing the center closure is a significant milestone for the project,” Linn said.

On a recent site tour, engineers pointed out that center gap as well as two smaller gaps on either side of the West River Bridge as the only links yet to be finished.

As crews continue to work on the new bridge’s deck, they can also walk through the body of the structure: It’s essentially a hollow tube of reinforced concrete, with ceilings inside ranging from about 12 feet to 37 feet high depending on the curvature of the bridge.

As he walked through the bridge and around the project site, Foster described it as “one of a kind,” while a colleague used the term “state of the art.” Hoyne agrees, and he was complimentary of PCL’s work despite the delays.

“’These are enormously complicated projects. They’re hand-built,” Hoyne said. “There’s no short-circuiting that process — it’s a lot of labor, it’s a lot of little details. These things take time.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #382 (Wednesday, November 9, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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