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Sunset Lake Road bridge called ‘worst of the worst’

Selectboard delays action on rebuilding troubled span over open meeting concerns

BRATTLEBORO—Engineers have urged the Selectboard to vote on a rehabilitation plan for a bridge that the state said had topped what Town Manager Barbara Sondag described as “the worst of the worst list.”At the board’s Nov. 1 meeting, board member David Gartenstein withdrew a motion to move forward with repairs to the Sunset Lake Road bridge, however, after fellow member Dora Bouboulis raised open meeting law concerns about taking a vote during a public hearing where no action was listed on the agenda.Sondag said the state notified the town in January of the bridge’s structual deficiencies. According to the website of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., the bridge is listed as “structurally deficient and in poor condition.”The federal government has pledged to cover 80 percent of the repair costs, while the state would pay 10 percent, Sondag said. Town Meeting representatives approved funding for the town’s required 10-percent match at the 2011 Annual Town Meeting.The Selectboard held a site visit at the Sunset Lake Road bridge prior to the Nov. 1 board meeting, with a public hearing scheduled for that evening’s board meeting.According to materials distributed by the town, the intent of the site visit, informational meeting, and public hearing was to “inform the public about the proposed rehabilitation of the Sunset Lake Road Bridge No. 7 and to discuss the preferred alternative for replacement of the existing bridge and maintenance of traffic during construction.”

Engineering options

BRATTLEBORO—Scott Burbank, of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB), outlined the project and presented the engineering firm’s preferred construction alternative.According to an informational notice from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT), VHB is a consulting engineering firm working for the state. The company, with offices in 11 states, including Vermont, will assist with the permitting, design, and construction bidding for the project.Burbank told the board that the current Sunset Lake Road bridge does not meet multiple design standards.Components like the railings and abutments were holding, but are not the best of shape, he said. Floods resulting from Tropical Storm Irene have also widened the upstream channel so that it now is two feet wider than the bridge.VHB explored three bridge construction alternatives, all with an approximate $1 million price tag and an expected lifespan of 50 to 75 years.Burbank suggested the board consider the second alternative: a bridge constructed of a concrete slab formed at a warehouse, driven to the site, and lowered into place. This alternative, he said, would mean a quick construction period.To help manage traffic during the building, Brubank suggested the board approve VHB building a temporary bridge open to one-way traffic. This traffic flow would increase safety, because cars would not enter the work site.Another traffic control method entails constructing half the bridge while keeping the other half open to traffic, Burbank explained. Once workers complete the first half, they open it to traffic and go to work on the other half.But the second method leaves a joist, or seam, down the center of the bridge that eventually weakens, he said, while a bridge constructed by the first method would remain joist free.Burbank said the scenario with the temporary bridge, although slightly more expensive, also avoids setting up a detour.A detour would add 15 minutes to a Sunset Lake Road resident’s commute, he said.At the end of his presentation, Burbank urged the board to vote on the suggested alternatives. VHB could jump into the design phase with the board’s blessing, he said.

Motions and actions

BRATTLEBORO—After Gartenstein made a motion to accept VHB’s bridge and traffic control alternatives, Bouboulis objected to the board taking a vote.According to Bouboulis, the board never announced to the public that the informational meeting or hearing would result in the board voting. The meeting materials, which include the agenda and the town manager’s administrative report, did not list a requested action either.To the public, this would imply that the board had no intention of taking a vote on the bridge that night, she said.A VHB engineering director accompanying Burbank said he hoped the board would vote and keep the project moving. He added that as the project progressed the public would have more opportunities for input.The town had to get in the line for funding, and waiting could add expenses, he warned.Bouboulis stood firm behind her objection, despite assertions from Selectboard chair Dick DeGray and Vice-Chair Christopher Chapman that the board never told people at the site visit that it would not vote at the meeting.Gartenstein agreed, saying he would “prefer to move forward.”“I am willing to begrudgingly acquiesce,” DeGray said.Gartenstein withdrew his motion.In a separate interview, Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven said Vermont’s right-to-know law does not specifically prohibit taking a vote following a public hearing.The law does, however, require the public have reasonable notification of meetings and votes.Considering that the town had stated that there was “no requested action” in the administrative report, it “put them in that hole” of effectively alerting the public that no vote was planned on the bridge, said Leven.It’s always best to err on the side of openness, he said.Secretary of State Jim Condos and Leven visited Oct. 27 as part of their Transparency Tour discussing the state’s open meeting and public records laws. Bouboulis and Chapman attended the meeting.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #126 (Wednesday, November 9, 2011).

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