Interstate 91 bridge construction is behind schedule
Secretary of Transportation Susan Minter, left, explained to the Brattleboro Selectboard at a special meeting on Monday night why the West River Bridge Project will not be finished on time. At right is Agency of Transportation engineer Wayne Symonds.

Interstate 91 bridge construction is behind schedule

Harsh winter, other delays push expected completion date to Nov. 2016

BRATTLEBORO — A heavy Vermont winter, delayed storm water management permits, and soil issues have extended the expected opening date for the Interstate 91 West River bridge into November 2016.

The project's original deadline was by the end of the 2015-16 winter season, Secretary of Transportation Susan Minter told town officials Monday.

Minter broke the unpleasant news to the Selectboard and department heads during a special board meeting.

“This bridge is behind schedule,” she said. “That is not the news I like to bring to you.”

Minter visited town to break the news in person. She and AOT colleagues discussed the $66 million project's new deadline and solicited feedback from the board and municipal employees about lessening the impact of traffic on the community.

The state is “not happy” that the contractor will miss its deadline, said Minter.

Minter received word in February that the project had fallen behind. Governor Peter Shumlin's office called on the leadership of construction companies FIGG Engineering Group, of Florida, and PCL Civil Constructors, Inc., of Virginia to meet with the state.

FIGG and PCL submitted a new work schedule in writing to Minter a week ago.

“We do believe they're now on track,” Minter said of the two firms.

The companies told Minter that they added resources to the project and doubled shifts.

Delays in the timeline won't add costs for the state, said Minter. The state might even recover some costs, called “liquidized damages,” incurred through the delays.

This bridge, at 1,000 feet, is the longest span in the state, said Minter. It's also one of the most expensive bridge projects in Vermont.

The new bridge, with an expected life of 100 years, will have a longer finished span of 1,036 feet.

It represents an investment of the current generation to the following generation, Minter said.

More than 50 years ago, she said, the preceding generation gave up its land, farms, and homes so Interstate 91 could become a reality, and “now it's our job to improve this bridge for the next generation.”

Safety and innovation

Minter said through its accelerated bridge program, the state is committed to safety and innovation.

Most bridges undergo a design-bid-build process, with the design preparation averaging about five years before the project goes out to bid, she said.

The Brattleboro bridge is under an aggressive three-year design-build process, one of the first projects done this way in the state.

So even with the project setbacks, “It is still getting done in an expedited fashion,” she said.

The West River bridge is one of six under construction between the Massachusetts border and White River Junction, said Minter.

One concrete bridge will eventually replace the two 50-year old, towering steel and rivet bridges that traverse the West River. A smaller bridge over Upper Dummerston Road will also be replaced.

At a July 23, 2013 public meeting, the AOT, FIGG, and PCL unveiled designs for the new Interstate 91 bridges, located between Exits 2 and 3.

Demolition of the northbound span began October 2013.

Planned detours and truck traffic

Construction contributes to traffic backups on the interstate, especially on holidays and weekends that draw out-of-state skiers to the Vermont slopes.

AOT closed Exit 3 last Sunday to help relieve congestion on Interstate 91, rerouting drivers north and south on Route 5. The agency plans to close the exit again on March 29 and April 5.

According to AOT Resident Engineer Eric Foster, the root cause of weekend congestion is the southbound Exit 3 on-ramp, where traffic also merges to one lane.

Foster said the ramp - where Route 9, the main east-west road between southern New Hampshire and southern Vermont meets up with Interstate 91 - contributed 300 to 700 vehicles per hour.

On the two recent Sundays when the state closed the on-ramp, he said, traffic speeds through the construction zone remained consistent.

Town officials react to news

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein thanked the AOT staff for their attention and information, observing that, in his five years on the board, the state has never provided this type of dialogue.

“It helps when we get notice sooner rather than later,” he added.

Gartenstein also asked Minter how the state would reimburse Brattleboro for the additional wear and tear on its town roads from the state redirecting traffic from the interstate.

“Those costs may be hidden to the state, but they're not hidden to us,” Gartenstein said.

He also reminded the state staff that Brattleboro was owed for being disadvantaged as a regional economic hub.

Director of Public Works Steve Barrett asked that FIGG and PCL provide additional signage along the detours through town.

Rerouting traffic through town puts pressure on the road, Barrett said, adding that the amount of truck traffic last Sunday surprised him.

Barrett also commented that the contracting team's mobilization during emergencies has “been a little weak.”

But, he said, “Overall, this project has gone really well for the size of it.”

Selectboard members also asked why the state or the companies didn't post signage warning drivers about planned detours from all directions.

Right now drivers don't learn about the detours until they're on top of them, said board members.

A perfect storm and a better big picture

In the big picture, Minter said, the state's commitment to improving its infrastructure has made Vermont's roadways more resilient and safer.

Minter served in the Legislature for six years, four of the years on the House Transportation Committee. During that time, two bridges on either side of Waterbury - one of her constituent towns - underwent emergency closures.

She said she witnessed the frustration of the community firsthand.

Bridge closures can have “very significant impacts to the surrounding communities,” Minter said.

Around the same time in 2007, the Interstate 35W Mississippi River bridge in Minnesota collapsed, killing 13 people, and the federal government told the states to investigate the structural integrity of their bridges.

According to Minter, at the time, Vermont ranked 48 on the list of 50 states for bridge safety. In 2009, the state established the transportation infrastructure bond fund to funnel money to necessary construction projects.

Minter stressed the state's efforts to remedy its bridge-safety problem and its surpassing of self-imposed improvement goals.

On a graph, Minter pointed to bridge data submitted in 2004, 2009, and 2014. Improvement shows across the board, she said.

In 2003, 11.2 percent of interstate bridges were structurally deficient. By 2008, that number had dropped to 7 percent and by 2014 to 2.6 percent.

Bridges on state highways started with 20 percent structural deficiencies in 2003, jumping up to 20.4 percent in 2008 and, by 2014, dropping to 7.3 percent.

The state cited similar patterns of improvement over the same time span in town highway bridges and the state's short bridges, which span between 6 and 20 feet.

When asked why the state's bridges lagged behind much of the country in receiving upgrades, Minter responded that “two bubbles” had collided.

The average lifespan of a highway bridge is about 50 years, she said. Most of the state's bridges were built after the 1927 flood, or in the 1950s and 1960s, as sections of Interstates 89 and 91 were constructed in Vermont.

“It's the perfect storm” of these bridges built en masse reaching the end of their lifespans and requiring rehabilitation all at once, said Minter.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the first section of Interstate 91 to open in Vermont was from the Massachusetts state line to Brattleboro on Nov. 1, 1958.

Minter noted that the federal government is footing approximately 90 percent of the Interstate 91 bridge contruction costs.

But “It's a very insecure time in terms of our federal funding,” she told town officials.

The federal transportation trust fund is expected to be insolvent by May, said Minter - a threat that should not affect this project, which has funds encumbered, she clarified on Tuesday. Any federal government efforts to freeze transportation spending could have an effect, she said.

Minter ended her presentation on a positive note, “We're going to have a great product at the end and we're going to be proud of it.”

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