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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Cause for concern

Environmental assessment for replacing Hinsdale bridges enters public comment period

BRATTLEBORO—In an Aug. 1 public meeting, complete with a bridge angel, consultants for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT), the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT), and the Federal Highway Administration took public comment on an environmental assessment required as part of replacing the two steel truss bridges connecting Brattleboro and Hinsdale, N.H.

Although the environmental assessment is an important step, construction of a new bridge is many years away.

New Hampshire, which has jurisdiction over the Hinsdale bridges, recently removed their replacement from its 10-year transportation plan. Only projects in the plan receive funding.

Members of the audience expressed concern that if the bridges were not replaced sooner rather than later, they would degrade to point where New Hampshire would have to close the bridges and cut Hinsdale off from Brattleboro, its nearest urban center.

Mary O’Leary, principal hydrologist with EIV Technical Services, outlined the project and environmental assessment for an audience of about 15 in the Brattleboro Union High School Multi-Purpose Room.

The two existing Pennsylvania truss bridges, the Charles Dana and Anna Hunt Marsh, were erected in 1920, and were upgraded in 1988, according to bridge inspection reports.

Attempts to replace the structures started in the 1970s.

According to O’Leary, the replacement project quickly hit snags. The railroad tracks on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River posed the first hurdle, then the two neighboring states disagreed, fruitlessly, over which state would pay for what in the project.

The project gained traction in the 1990s, O’Leary said. Local bridge committees formed, hearings were held, and a technical working group was formed, which included both the AOT and NHDOT.

The multiple meetings, committees, and working groups led to the drafting of conceptual designs now part of the environmental assessment.

EIV was hired some five years ago to update the environmental assessment and solutions for the bridge. The options included doing nothing and nine alternatives.

Doing nothing is not an option, said O’Leary.

According to inspection reports from NHDOT’s Bureau of Bridge Design, the existing bridges, although safe, are considered functionally obsolete.

The bridges are too narrow, too short, and have bad approach angles for large trucks. Inspection reports detailed age issues such as rust, holes in some lower lateral braces, curling sidewalk planks, and chipped or flaking concrete.

Average annual daily traffic counts in 2010 for the main artery between Hinsdale and Brattleboro stood at 9,700. Projected counts for 2032 increase to nearly 15,000.

Of the nine alternative designs, O’Leary said Option F, with construction costs estimated at $31.5 million, tops the list.

Some actions related to Option F, also called the Blue Seal Option after the Blue Seal feed store that was razed to make way for the bridge, have occurred, said O’Leary.

This option includes converting the Charles Dana and Anna Hunt Marsh bridges into bicycle and pedestrian crossings.

The new roadway would move south of the existing bridges. Drivers on the Vermont side would access the approximately 1,800 foot-long bridge from Route 142. The bridge would connect on the New Hampshire side near the former Norm’s Auto Sales, at the former Walmart site.

The railroad tracks, often cited as impeding emergency services, would run below the new bridge.

O’Leary said EIV feels confident Option F could avoid, mitigate, or manage effects on natural resources.

The environmental assessment quantifies impacts on resources such as agricultural lands, wetlands, hazardous materials, noise, air quality, and socio-economic/environmental justice. The impacts are quantified as none, minimal, limited, moderate, or substantial.

According to documents O’Leary distributed at the Aug. 1 meeting, all 10 alternatives presented themselves as no-, minimal-, or limited-impact. A few alternatives listed substantial impacts in some categories.

Option F’s impacts came in at none, minimal, and limited.

The audience’s comments reflected two communities tired of waiting for a more functional bridge.

Many of the public comments started with, “This project must happen,” or, “We can’t wait.”

Members of the public also said they were concerned about traffic snarls and train crossings blocking or slowing access to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital during emergencies.

Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is about seven miles from Hinsdale, N.H. Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H. is about 21 miles from Hinsdale.

Self-appointed “bridge angel” and whistleblower Michael Mulligan of Hinsdale, replete with a handmade halo, held pieces of rusted bridge above his head and proclaimed the bridges unsafe.

“How do we really know these bridges are going to last another 50 years?” he said.

Mulligan also asserted that the New Hampshire government had “falsified” documents regarding the bridges’ safety, were “baloneying the people,” and could not be trusted.

“You cannot trust the state to do an inspection,” Mulligan said.

O’Leary disagreed with Mulligan’s accusations.

Mulligan detailed in the public meeting, and on his blog, The Popperville Town Hall (http://bit.ly/15Lr0pC), how he pulled “loose” wooden planks from the pedestrian walkway and tossed them into the Connecticut River in an attempt to force authorities to deal with the Charles Dana Bridge walkway’s treacherous planks on July 31.

NHDOT replaced the missing planks the next day.

Mulligan then reported his action to the Hinsdale Police.

The Brattleboro Reformer reported on Aug. 6 that Mulligan had been arrested and released on $5,000 bail. Conditions of the bail say Mulligan can drive over the bridges, but must neither walk within a mile of the Charles Dana Bridge nor stop vehicles within 100 yards of the bridges.

For Edwin Smith, a New Hampshire resident and bridge committee member, the environmental assessment represented “a big first step, the most important step in 15 years.”

“Both states do have a horse in this game,” Smith said.

Making progress on the assessment shows that New Hampshire and Vermont can get something done, and that the states and federal governments aren’t throwing money away, Smith said.

Smith and fellow bridge committee member New Hampshire Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale, publicly supported Option F.

Option F would create a functional bridge that is also environmentally friendly, said Smith.

“It’s time to do the right thing in this case,” Smith added.

According to O’Leary, environmental assessments are a federal requirement and evaluate the environmental, social, cultural resources, and natural resources that could be affected by a construction project.

O’Leary expected the Hinsdale bridge project to receive a finding of no significant impact, or FONSI, from the Federal Highway Administration.

The FHA has reviewed the environmental assessment once already. Now the assessment is in a 15-day public comment period. EIV will collect and document public comment and change the assessment as necessary before sending it to the FHA for final review.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #215 (Wednesday, August 7, 2013).

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