BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard held a site visit and public hearing last week related to the state’s acquisition of property rights necessary for the estimated $59.44 million Brattleboro-Hinsdale Bridge Project.
Once completed in 2024, the new bridge will replace the Anna Hunt Marsh and Charles Dana bridges that currently connect Brattleboro to Hinsdale, N.H.
The two 1920s-era metal bridges over the Connecticut River have been deemed functionally obsolete and structurally deficient.
The project was first proposed in the mid-1990s, according to documentation from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT).
Issues with funding and agreements between New Hampshire and Vermont have at times delayed the project’s progress. NHDOT is the head agency leading and funding the work. The majority of the bridge will sit within New Hampshire’s borders.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) is the project partner overseeing work on the Vermont side of the border. AOT will contribute approximately $15.7 million to the project, according to documents from NHDOT. The town of Brattleboro will offer support for the AOT’s work.
As part of obtaining the property or easements necessary for the project, the state has contacted four property owners along Vernon Street. Prior to the board’s public hearing, the state had come to agreements with three owners.
The owners of 12 Left Bank Way, however, had not replied to the state’s offer to purchase slope rights and a temporary construction right-of-way. Therefore, a public hearing before the Selectboard became the state’s next step.
Town Attorney Bob Fisher described the hearing as the “taking for just compensation” of property.
The front of the 12 Left Bank Way property faces South Main Street. The part of the property that abuts Vernon Street is a steep bank.
According to records from the town Office of Assessment, the 0.63-acre parcel, with a single-family house and detached garage, have been owned by Jeffrey Rose and Betty Tullius since Jan. 2.
Town Attorney Bob Fisher said state employees’ made multiple attempts to contact Rose and Tullius, including a letter by certified mail and “a last ditch effort” by AOT Manager Trey Polk, who called Rose’s mother after finding her phone number on the internet.
The state is offering the owners $600: $250 for a temporary right-of-way for use during the project construction, and $350 for a permanent easement that includes the steep bank that abuts the road.
According to AOT employees, the offer was set at $600 because the land is not considered valuable or usable because of its steep slope. Also, the proposed land use would not restrict access to the house or garage.
Polk surmised that the lack of communication from either Rose or Tullius was due to “a lack of concern” about the land’s low value.
The Selectboard has 60 days to issue its decision, said Fisher.
Board Vice-Chair Liz McLoughlin asked if given the COVID-19 pandemic, Rose and Tullius hadn’t returned communications because they were ill. Fisher said to his knowledge, both were healthy and working in town. Clerk Ian Goodnow asked Fisher if legally the town and state had done their due diligence with contacting the couple. Fisher answered, yes.
“From a due-process standpoint, we’re in pretty good shape,” Fisher said.
Rose and his spouse, Betty Tullius, moved to Brattleboro from Colorado recently. They’ve lived at 12 Left Bank Way for approximately 10 months.
In a phone conversation with The Commons, Rose said that he contacted Trey Polk at AOT this week to negotiate the amount of money the state has offered.
“I understand that the bridge is needed,” Rose said. At the same time, he also feels disappointed and frustrated.
Had the couple known how the bridge project would affect their property, they probably wouldn’t have bought their house, Rose said. For example, as he understands it, the state will likely cut down some of the trees that screen the house from the road below.
Rose said that he and Tullius did not respond to the state’s letters sooner because, as new Brattleboro residents, they were busy finding a home, jobs, and navigating the pandemic.
The public meetings that Rose knew of happened when the couple were working. The couple has a landline but did not receive any calls from the state or town, he added.
If the board issues an order in favor of the state, then the property owners can appeal that finding to Vermont Superior Court, Fisher said. The board will make its decision at a future meeting.
NHDOT Commissioner Victoria F. Sheehan outlined the need for the proposed 1,798-foot-long bridge in a 2019 grant request letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“The existing bridges are in a deteriorated condition and will require increasing and costly maintenance in the upcoming years to continue to serve as the primary east-west route in the region,” she wrote.
Sheehan wrote that because of the metal bridge’s narrow travel lanes and low available clearance, trucks and oversized vehicles often hit the structure. These “strikes” are dangerous and impede traffic, she added.
The existing bridges require constant repairs and inspections, she wrote.
The new bridge “will completely address the functional obsolescence of the existing structures” and “also addresses the important movement of people and goods in this rural region of the state, which enhances employment opportunities and maintains connectivity to local, regional, national, international freight systems.”
According to AOT Project Manager Gary Laroche, the state reached agreements with the other Vernon Street property owners impacted by the bridge project prior to the Nov. 10 hearing.
Laroche said in the first year of the project, contractors on the Vermont side will relocate utilities. Meanwhile, New Hampshire will begin building the bridge’s abutments and piers. Most of the roadwork on the Vermont side of the river will happen in year two, he said.
Once the project starts, contractors will demolish two buildings.
To make way for the new bridge — which NHDOT describes as an eight-span, curved-steel-girder structure — and a redesigned intersection with Vernon Street (Route 142), a commercial building at 94 Vernon St., most recently owned by Heim-Haus LLC and the current headquarters of Yankee Dog, will come down.
The new road configuration will make pedestrian access unsafe to a private residence at 85 Vernon St. So the state has also reached an agreement with owner CV Properties Inc. of Montreal to purchase the building for demolition.
Contractors also propose moving the entrance to the private, permit-only parking lot belonging to 28 Vernon St. LLC (the former Marlboro Graduate School building). The parking lot will also lose 32 parking spaces.
During the site visit, Mike Renaud, one of the LLC members, said he had reached a verbal agreement with the AOT about purchasing the parking lot.
“The project needs to happen,” he said. “I don’t want to stall it any longer.”
The proposed bridge is designed to span the Connecticut River, as well as Barrows & Fisher’s “tank farm,” and the New England Central Railroad tracks to connect to Vermont Route 142.
In the area around the new intersection, crews will relocate utilities, including town water and sewer, communications, and electrical. Most of these services will be moved underground, Laroche said.
Contractors will also add retaining walls when they rebuild the road to slope up to the new intersection and then down again toward Royal Road, which leads to Morningside Commons and Groundworks’ Morningside Shelter. This new 12-foot grade will let the bridge have the required 23-foot minimum clearance over the railroad, said Laroche.
The intersection is slated to include turning signals and turning lanes.
Sidewalks are also planned for the stretch between downtown Brattleboro and the bridge. Elwell said the town is also negotiating with the state to build a sidewalk from Royal Road to the bridge, with a crossing area for pedestrians, should engineers determine that such a feature would be safe.
“We’re going to do it if we can,” Elwell said.
During the site visit, McLoughlin asked if any soil remediation would be necessary in case of pollutants in the ground.
Laroche said he couldn’t respond specifically but noted that soil testing had happened as part of the project’s environmental assessment. When possible, the project will reuse existing fill instead of shipping in dirt, he said.
As truck and car traffic rumbled past and participants of the site visit needed to yell to be heard, McLoughlin also urged Laroche to implement more sound mitigation measures. Yes, he said, the project’s designers tested for potential sound issues.
McLoughlin, who pointed out that the noise is estimated to increase to just under 10 decibels, argued that residents along Route 142 will notice a significant sound increase. Something still needs to be done to temper that extra noise, she said.
“[The increase] will not be to the extent of your standard, but it will be louder,” she said.
Laroche said that water will route into a gravel collection area called a “gravel wetland,” whose gravel and other fill will help filter the water as it flows through the collection system and back into the Connecticut River.
Laroche added that the state Agency of Natural Resources had signed off on the gravel wetland and that it met best practices for this type of system.
According to Brattleboro Public Works Director Steve Barrett, when road construction begins, AOT will close the section of Route 142/Vernon Road between downtown and Royal Road. Traffic will be redirected along South Main Street, Fairground Road, and Cotton Mill Hill, he reported.
Given the hill’s hairpin turn onto Route 142, crews will construct a turnaround south of the Cotton Mill Hill and Route 142 intersection.
Drivers traveling south on Route 142 who want to turn onto Cotton Mill Hill — rather than making a right turn onto the hill — will instead, drive past the intersection. They will then turn around and make a left turn onto the hill, Barrett explained.
Bonnie Girvan, president of the board for Morningside Commons, asked if residents could temporarily use an emergency access road that cuts from the housing area through the cemetery on South Main Street.
Barrett said yes, that the access road will be open for the Fire Department. He reminded Girvan that if the road is open, anyone can drive on it.
Girvan said that would be fine, as long as the road had a weight limit for trucks. Barrett said that it did.
Elwell explained that the state is overseeing and funding the Vermont portion of the bridge project. The town is the state’s partner, he said.
The site visit represented “decades of preparation,” he said.