BRATTLEBORO—How long does it take to build a new bridge?
When it connects two states across a body of water, includes a railroad grade crossing and a hazardous waste site, and involves one of Brattleboro’s least-favorite intersections, it could take 40 years.
And they haven’t even started construction.
Earlier this year, officials with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation began convening meetings to address replacing the two Route 119 bridges that cross the Connecticut River and connect Brattleboro to Hinsdale.
Long-time locals have heard this one before.
The Department first identified serious deficiencies with the Route 119 crossing in 1977.
Since then, every few years the project seems to build up steam again, with meetings and studies and reports.
And still the bridges remain.
During three meetings this year — one in February, March, and April — representatives from the NHDOT, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Windham Regional Commission, the New Hampshire and Vermont legislatures, the Brattleboro and Hinsdale municipal offices, and other stakeholders picked up the project again.
Brattleboro Town Manager Peter B. Elwell, who serves as chair of the bridge’s Project Advisory Committee, told The Commons the project’s renewed effort came to his attention last summer.
The project is currently in the design phase, Elwell said. It’s still too early to determine costs, and construction start- and end-dates. But, the committee is moving along, he said. “At the next meeting, we’ll discuss overlooks on the bridge,” Elwell said — such as how many, and should there be any at all.
The Route 119 crossing connecting Brattleboro and Hinsdale consists of two bridges separated by an island.
The Anna Hunt Marsh Bridge, on the western side of the river channel, was built in 1920. A 2012 New Hampshire Department of Transportation bridge inspection report gave it an efficiency rating of 49, on a scale from 0 to 100.
On the eastern side of the channel lies the Charles Dana Bridge, constructed in 1926. It received a rating of 47 in the Department’s 2012 inspection.
The National Bridge Inventory rates both bridges as “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient.”
Each bridge has received a few rounds of rehabilitation since 1977, and some of the ten options the Brattleboro/Hinsdale Bridge Committee presented call for continuing repairs and modifications to the existing bridges.
Other alternatives include placing a parallel bridge directly to the south of the current structures, building a crossing near the Georgia Pacific plant, approximately one mile south of the Marsh and Dana Bridges, and putting a bridge about 1,000 feet north of the existing one, at the intersection of Route 9 and Main Street. The latter would run right through The River Garden.
But the consensus among the stakeholders is to choose the option known as “Alternative F,” also known as the “Preferred Alternative,” according to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation document.
The ’preferred alternative’
This plan calls for building a new bridge, located about 1,000 feet south of the current bridges.
The steel I-beam girder structure has “aesthetic enhancements,” according to the plan’s executive summary, and will include a sidewalk on the upstream side.
Once cars begin traveling over the new bridge, the plan is to maintain the old bridges for pedestrian and bicycle use only.
This will bring the new bridge away from the intersection locals refer to as “Malfunction Junction,” where Routes 5, 119, and 142 meet — along with the entrance to the Brattleboro Food Co-op — in a disjointed tangle of blind spots, changes in roadway grade, a railroad grade crossing, and harried pedestrians.
Although travelers approaching the new crossing from most points in Brattleboro will still pass through Malfunction Junction, Bridge Street will no longer be a main traffic artery, forcing drivers to wait for a train to pass multiple times each day.
The plans for Alternative F show the Hinsdale side of the bridge placed close to the point where Mountain Road meets Route 119, near Norm’s Marina. Planners anticipate the need to relocate a private access road serving the Marina and an auto recycling center.
On the Brattleboro side, plans for the bridge show it running right through the building at 94 Vernon Street. This structure — and the three-story wooden house across the street from it — will require eminent domain seizure and demolition. Fuel storage tanks between the shoreline and Route 142/Vernon Street will need to be moved.
And the Marlboro College Graduate Center will lose 25 parking stations at the south end of the lot.
Construction’s effect on downtown Brattleboro traffic is anticipated to be minimal, “but there will be some impact,” Elwell said. Because the new bridge is going up 1,000 feet south of the old bridge, traffic can continue to use the Marsh and Dana Bridges until construction is complete.
But the section of Vernon Road surrounding the bridge entrance will see some major construction, including a closure. Elwell said the bridge’s Brattleboro entrance, which takes the roadway over the railroad tracks and the fuel tanks, requires elevating the road surface at least 12 feet.
During Vernon Road’s closure, and some of the construction period, heavy equipment will come through downtown, but not all, Elwell said. Industrial vehicles accessing businesses south of the project will use Cotton Mill Hill.
“The team will need to work through that as the date approaches,” Elwell said.
Why the delays?
The Department’s document notes that “Studies, meetings, and initiatives regarding this corridor have occurred since the discovery of deficiencies in the two existing Route 119 bridges by the NHDOT in 1977.”
According to the document, “project development has been slowed by various factors such as coal tar deposits, the RR crossing on the Vermont side, and the study of ten separate project alternatives.”
Getting two states to agree on a multimillion dollar project also has been a challenge. The document mentions a dispute over an elevated railroad crossing. During previous attempts at planning the bridge, New Hampshire officials wanted Vermont to pay for one, but Vermont balked, and the project stalled.
Although the bridge project is still in the design phase, and funding for construction isn’t planned until 2019, Windham Regional Commission Transportation Planner Erica Roper assured The Commons the Project Advisory Committee “is pushing really hard to make it happen this time.”
Elwell also commented on the success of the committee. “It’s going along really well,” he said, noting the group’s ability to identify and address issues and concerns. “Everybody has the opportunity to offer input,” he said.
So far, Elwell said, the stakeholders are getting along nicely, too. “It’s been really rewarding. There has not been a split vote yet. Together we’re literally finding consensus.”