BRATTLEBORO—Under a brilliant blue sky, more than 800 people came out on a cold, blustery Saturday afternoon to get a firsthand look at the new $60.2 million bridge that spans the West River.
Cars speeding northward on Interstate 91 will use the northbound lanes of the 1,036-foot-long concrete bridge on March 13. But on March 4, area residents could walk across the span and admire the vista looking east toward the Retreat Meadows and Mt. Wantastiquet.
School buses shuttled visitors from the parking lot at Brattleboro Union High School to the bridge. People arrived early to get a seat — about 150 were in line when the first bus was loaded at 1 p.m.
One of the early birds was Becky Cameron of Brattleboro. She said that when she was young, she rode her bicycle from her home near Exit 2 to Exit 3 just before that section of I-91 was completed in the fall of 1960.
“This will be my second bridge crossing,” she said. “I wasn’t going to miss this for anything.”
Town Manager Peter Elwell said many details had to be worked out so that people could see the bridge up close — and do so safely.
“This is great,” Elwell said. “People can get a chance to walk on the bridge and find out all about it from the guys who built it.”
This was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a reason. According to the builders, FIGG Bridge Engineers and PCL Civil Constructors, the new concrete bridge is designed to last for 100 years.
“It’s one of the biggest single projects we’ve ever taken on,” said Eric Foster, the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s resident engineer on the bridge project. “It’s certainly different from anything we’d ever done before.”
In a recent report to the Vermont Legislature, Foster wrote that the bridge superstructure has required 14,000 cubic yards of concrete, and the construction site has swallowed 3 million pounds of rebar.
PCL started dismantling the northbound span of the old steel bridge in late 2013, while diverting traffic to the southbound span. The new bridge is on the footprint of the old one, said PCL project manager Caleb Linn, but the bridge deck is wider so it can accommodate four lanes of traffic.
The views from the bridge are beautiful but fleeting from inside a car traveling 65 mph. At walking speed, they could be savored and enjoyed. No one was in a big hurry to finish the walk — equivalent to three football fields in length — despite the cold.
PCL workers said the bridge will be ready for northbound traffic on March 13. All that’s left to do is to grind the concrete deck to put grooves in the roadway similar to the ones on the I-91 bridges over Williams Street and Whetstone Brook.
The southbound lanes will be open later this summer. PCL will then dismantle the old, rusting southbound bridge by the end of 2017, concluding the major highway project.