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Clock ticks on bridges linking Brattleboro, Hinsdale

Local, state officials seek to get deteriorating spans onto 10-year plan

The two bridges that connect Hinsdale, N.H. and Brattleboro safely convey traffic.

But this truth does not mean the structures — built the same year that Babe Ruth debuted with the New York Yankees, that Prohibition took effect, and when half the cars on the American road were Model Ts — are functional for today’s mega-18-wheelers and SUVs.

Hinsdale town officials, state legislators, and members of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) met last week to discuss replacing the Charles Dana and Anna Hunt Marsh bridges, which span the Connecticut River to connect Brattleboro and Hinsdale.

The Keene-based Southwest Region Planning Commission has placed solving the bridge issue on a priority list submitted to the DOT.

The department will evaluate whether to place the bridges on its 10-year improvement plan.

“This corner of the state gets screwed,” said Hinsdale Selectboard member Jay Ebbighausen. “Do you know how to spell that?”

Local officials expressed concern about the bridges’ long-term structural safety. They also discussed the bridges’ effect on economic development.

If the bridges close, Hinsdale would essentially be cut off from the main travel corridor of Interstate 91. But, officials said, the challenges faced by modern traffic crossing the narrow bridges create patterns that slow the town’s already-sluggish economic development.

In 2010, 9,700 vehicles crossed the bridge, the main artery between Hinsdale and Brattleboro. The DOT estimates that by 2032, that number will increase by nearly 5,000, to 14,356 vehicles daily.

Of the nearly 10,000 vehicles that use the bridges each day, 4 percent is truck traffic.

If the bridges close, the shortest detour between Brattleboro and Hinsdale would be 16 miles, through Chesterfield over Routes 9 and 63.

“We can’t ever have those bridges shut down,” Ebbighausen said.

‘Functionally obsolete’

According to inspection reports from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Bridge Design, the bridges, while safe, are considered “functionally obsolete.”

They’re too narrow, too short, and have bad approach angles for large trucks, said Mark W. Richardson, the engineer who administers the state’s Bureau of Bridge Design.

Inspection history shows in detail that the steel-truss bridges exhibit issues of aging: rust, holes in some lower lateral braces, curling sidewalk planks, and chipped or flaking concrete.

About 15 years ago, the bridges received a few five-year temporary repairs, said Richardson.

“Where do we stand in obsolescence?” asked Rep. Tara Sad (Cheshire-District 01).

“Clearly, this bridge needs some attention,” Richardson said.

“Functionally, you’d grind Brattleboro to a halt,” responded Ebbighausen.

Hinsdale Police Chief Todd Faulkner described daily calls to the station from motorists complaining of minor fender-benders on the bridges. The accidents are usually caused by clipping the guardrail in close quarters, he said.

New Hampshire law requires police report accidents that result in injuries or over $1,000 in damage, Faulkner said. But smaller bangs, like broken mirrors, occur daily as well.

He asked that motorists report all accidents to the Hinsdale Police. Even if the motorist decides not to file a report, the department will start tracking dates and types of damage to help the town plead its case to the state.

The antiquated structures often force large tractor trailers to cross the center line, said Faulkner. The bridges, separated by a small island and a piece of curved road, pose a challenge to trailers that are too long to follow the curve.

“It’s competing harms,” he said.

If the trucks drive in their lanes, they risk whacking the bridges, Faulkner said. Yet if they drive in the center, where the bridges are tallest, the truckers cross the solid yellow line, which is illegal.

“So we don’t enforce that,” he said.

To make matters trickier, the approach on the Brattleboro side of the river leads through a five-way intersection, nicknamed Malfunction Junction, and an active railroad crossing.

“Malfunction Junction in Brattleboro causes huge problems for those trucks,” said Faulkner. “Most of the back-ups are in Brattleboro.”

Meeting members also noted that backups on the bridges can hinder emergency services, like ambulance service to nearby Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

Multiple proposals

Multiple ideas have been proposed to fix the Charles Dana and Anna Hunt Marsh bridges, including one recent proposal that suggests restricting them to to pedestrian and bike traffic.

Vehicular traffic would then use a new bridge, which would stretch from Route 119, on the Hinsdale side, across the Connecticut to Vermont’s Route 142. This approach to the new bridge would run from the junction of Routes 5, 119, and 142, past the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Vernon Street.

To alleviate stopping traffic for trains, the new bridge’s approach would cross above the train tracks.

The cost of relocating and building the new bridge is estimated at $36 million, said Richardson.

Vermont is expected to kick in $4.5 million plus $10 million for the right-of-way process. Vermont is also charged with an environmental assessment.

Richardson said the assessment has been completed but not approved.

The bridge project, more than 20 years in the making, made it onto the state’s 10-year Highway Plan in 1986 but, meeting attendees said, it was removed due to budgetary concerns or, according to Rep. Lucy McVitty Weber (Cheshire-District 01), because the two states’ governors at the time had a spat.

Weber asked if there was a chance this project could be funded through a public/private collaboration.

Referring to the inspection report for the Charles Dana bridge, Richardson said, “This bridge should not be expected to be in service for another 10 years.”

State Senator Molly Kelly (District 10) leafed through inspection photos of the Charles Dana bridge. Although she understood that the state considered the bridges safe, the photos made her “uneasy.”

“This is our bridge, and this is here and we are very concerned,” Kelly said.

Kelly, along with state representatives, pressed Richardson and his colleague, Mark Sanborn, the DOT’s federal liaison, on what Hinsdale and its legislators can do to help ensure the project makes it on the state’s next 10-year bridge repair plan, a process that Sanborn described as “building that story of why this [new] bridge needs funding.”

“You all help us decide where the pot of money goes,” he added.

Sanborn, who said he deals with the political side of issues, cautioned that the state is evaluating “wants versus needs.”

On the surface, the two Hinsdale bridges look like a want to the state legislature in Concord, he said.

He advised the town to build a “quantitive and narrative case” for the project by coordinating with Brattleboro officials to build a case from the grassroots. He also urged addressing the project’s “shovel readiness.”

“There are very few wants any more in this state,” said Kelly. “They’re all needs.”

Just because the project receives funding doesn’t mean it will happen, said Richardson. The project design and right-of-way on Vermont’s side must be approved. New Hampshire, for its part, has yet to hold a public hearing on this project.

Vermont has set aside $10 million for the right-of-way process, said Richardson. But it can’t complete the process without other project designs that haven’t happened yet.

Rep. Paul Berch (Cheshire-District 01) likened the situation to two clocks counting down time, with the first ticking down the bridges’ physical life and the second clock slowly counting the funding timeline.

The bridges’ physical deterioration clock is ticking faster than the funding clock, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #203 (Wednesday, May 15, 2013).

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