BRATTLEBORO—Officials with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation presented two public information meetings — one in Hinsdale, and one in Brattleboro — to introduce the Connecticut River bridge project.
If public comment at the Brattleboro meeting is any indication, residents really care about driving to Mountain Road in Hinsdale. In a presentation that lasted just under two hours, attendees’ questions kept coming back to whether the new bridge’s design would allow safe left turns onto Wantastiquet Mountain’s access road.
The two bridges, which connect Brattleboro to Hinsdale via New Hampshire Route 119, have been on the Department’s radar for major upgrades for 40 years. In 1977, department officials first identified serious deficiencies with the spans.
Since then, every few years, the project seems to build up steam again, with meetings, studies, and reports.
And still the bridges remain, mostly because of a lack of funding. But that’s about to change.
During four meetings earlier this year, the Project Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, 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.
According to NHDOT Project Manager Don Lyford, the plan “is in final design now.”
But drivers expecting a new bridge to go up soon will need to exercise patience. This project won’t likely go out to bid until September 2019. If the bid is approved in January 2020, construction will begin in early 2020 and continue for two years.
“Hopefully you can cross that bridge in 2022,” Lyford said.
Meet the new bridge
After considering a number of designs — and places to put a new span — the advisory committee chose a new, steel I-beam girder bridge with a concrete deck and an asphalt surface, located about 1,000 feet south of the current bridge.
To allow the bridge and its approach to clear the main line of the New England Central Railroad and an oil tank farm belonging to Barrows & Fisher Oil on Depot Street, Route 142 must be raised by at least 12 feet.
The tank farm will remain in use, said NHDOT Senior Project Engineer William P. Saffian, but the state will grant an 80-foot easement from each face of the bridge, dictating that no tanks can lie within that easement area. This means the oil companies will have to move some of their tanks, Saffian said.
To further protect the fuel tanks, plans to put a fence guard on the section of the bridge that crosses the railroad tracks may be extended to the area above the tank farm, he added.
In Brattleboro, the bridge will connect with Vermont Route 142 at 94 Vernon St., which requires an eminent domain seizure and demolition of the building at that address.
The intersection of the west end of the bridge and Route 142 will have a traffic light. Drivers heading south on Route 142 will have a left-turn and a through-lane. Coming off the bridge, drivers will have left- and right-turn lanes.
The bridge will connect with the Hinsdale side near Mountain Road and Norm’s Marina. “We propose [keeping] the George’s Field intersection the same,” said NHDOT Preliminary Design Supervisor Trent C. Zanes.
On the New Hampshire side, Mountain Road will have a stop sign for drivers coming on to NH Route 119.
This is where many attendees got stuck.
Some questioned the sight distance, wondering if drivers heading eastbound on the bridge will see cars waiting to turn left from Route 119 onto Mountain Road.
Questions on safety
Although NHDOT officials repeatedly explained the planned design conformed with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ ratings for a 35 mph road — the planned posted speed limit for the bridge — attendees repeatedly questioned the design and propriety of the Route 119-Mountain Road intersection.
Some attendees suggested that many drivers — including those of tractor-trailers — may go faster than the posted speed limit, especially on a new, flat bridge.
The wide shoulders and painted island between the east and westbound lanes will facilitate a safer intersection, NHDOT officials countered.
Drivers “are not going to be sitting on 119 for any significant amount of time” to wait to turn left onto Mountain Road, Zanes said.
The design of the bridge will “have an arch effect,” said Saffian, and will have five girders, located at 11-foot intervals beneath the bridge.
The visible metal parts of the bridge will likely be what he called “weathering steel,” an unpainted surface that “looks rusty brown, but they are not rusting — it’s a patina,” he explained.
The entire span’s length is 1,782-feet, and is “partially tangent — or straight — and partially curved,” said Saffian. “It’s a fairly flat bridge,” he said, with a 1 percent downgrade on either end to allow for drainage.
Designs show five piers supporting the bridge. The advisory committee gave their input on the design, Saffian said, and voted on a solid wall pier, but the inset “makes it look like a two-column pier,” he said. Each pier will have a steel-reinforced “pointed nose” on the upstream side, he said, which will split any ice coming downriver.
An attendee noted one pier rests on the island, but Saffian assured him “the pier is not dependent on the island for support.”
Two 12-foot lanes
Plans for the new bridge show two 12-foot travel lanes — one heading in each direction — with an 8-foot shoulder on each side, and a 6-foot-wide sidewalk on the upstream side. Each end will have an 11-foot turning lane. In comparison, the current structure — which is composed of two bridges, separated by an island — is 20 feet wide.
The bridge’s sidewalk will connect to sidewalks on the Vermont and the New Hampshire sides. The Vermont walk will begin in front of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center and extend south past Marlboro College to Royal Road, with a signaled pedestrian crossing at the bridge and at Royal Road. In Hinsdale, the sidewalk will go to Mountain Road and to George’s Field Road.
Although plans call for “bump-out overlooks” on viewing platforms along the sidewalk on the upstream side of the bridge, Saffian said the advisory committee is still deciding on the number of platforms and their placement. But, he said, it is likely the overlooks will have “permanent information” installed detailing the history of the towns and the bridges, “to make them more of a destination.”
Brattleboro resident Dora Bouboulis urged NHDOT officials to “do as much as possible to maintain the night sky” when choosing the bridge’s lights.
The advisory committee is also still working on that, Saffian said, and no plans are currently available on the number, location, or style of light fixtures.
NHDOT officials said they expect to keep the remaining bridge, but limit its use to pedestrians and bicyclists only. Lyford told attendees “the thing that keeps me from promising” to keep the bridge, “is funding.”
Lyford said he is looking into getting some grant money to rehabilitate the Marsh and Dana bridges for recreational, non-vehicular use. “We’ll do some work to the steel underneath to make sure [the bridges] don’t fall down,” he said.
Guilford resident John Wellman, a member of the Squakheags, pointed out that the land under the new bridge was home to a number of Native American tribes. He asked NHDOT officials to “show a certain respect when digging up my ancestors.”
Lyford said that, although state officials already conducted archaeological investigations of the proposed construction area, “especially in light of the Native gentleman’s concerns,” they will take another look.
NHDOT officials expect little direct effect on traffic in downtown Brattleboro during construction. According to Zanes, the active work area will terminate just south of the Marlboro College-Holstein Association pedestrian overpass.
One attendee questioned the noise for residents living at Morningside Commons during construction. “That’s a challenge for us,” Zanes acknowledged, “because we’re raising the grade” on Route 142. “We’ll look into that in the traffic advisory report,” he said.
The traffic light at the bridge will not be coordinated with the light at the Vermont Route 5 and 142 intersection — or as locals call it, “malfunction junction,” because, as Zanes explained, “they don’t need to be” because the two lights aren’t close enough to warrant coordination.
When some attendees questioned this, Zanes said, “keep in mind: all [Route] 119 traffic will shift to [Route] 142.” With the new bridge, he said, the timings will change, “and traffic should flow better” because “by removing the number of conflicts at that intersection, it should be more efficient” to travel through malfunction junction.
“You’re not going to see a lot of queueing on that section of [Route] 142,” Zanes said.
“We know the five-legged intersection is a problem,” Zanes said, and during construction and with the new bridge, “we’re not looking to make it worse.”