Vilas Bridge restoration project removed from N.H. agenda — for now
A view of the Vila Bridge from the Bellows Falls side of the Connecticut River.

Vilas Bridge restoration project removed from N.H. agenda — for now

Engineers say bridge, closed since 2009, is dangerous even for pedestrian-only traffic; officials look at other options

BELLOWS FALLS — In spite of news reports that the Vilas Bridge could be reopened for pedestrians, New Hampshire officials say that is not going to happen until more assessments are done - or anytime soon.

Stuck in limbo in a nationwide infrastructure funding crisis, the Vilas Bridge is not a priority for either Vermont or New Hampshire transportation officials.

Indeed, since testimony before the Public Works and Highways Committee in the New Hampshire House of Representatives on Jan. 23, 2014, by Development Director Francis “Dutch” Walsh, supporting legislation to fund the reconstruction of the historic bridge that connects the village with Walpole, N.H., nothing further has happened.

That legislation has died in part because there are two other ways to get over the Connecticut River in case of emergencies: the Arch Bridge to the north and the Westminster Bridge to the south.

Town and village officials and businesses argue that railroad tracks just over the bridge in North Walpole could shut down emergency response service access at a crucial moment and that the railroad overpass that spans the Westminster Station access on the Vermont side is problematic for certain types of response vehicles due to its height.

Businesses also reported a sharp downturn of revenue following the closure of the bridge in 2009 by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NH DOT) for structural failure.

While still on New Hampshire's transportation red list - state-owned bridges that require twice-a-year inspections “due to known deficiencies, poor conditions, weight restrictions, or type of construction” - the Vilas Bridge was dropped from the 10-year list of transportation improvement priorities to be fixed in 2016.

The good news, said NH DOT Public Information Officer Bill Boynton, is that the 10-year plan is reviewed every two years.

With the most recent review completed and the bill in the house for approval in June, the process begins anew this fall, with another opportunity to prioritize and secure funding for further assessments and then repairs.

In the meantime, Walsh assured that the Rockingham development office “has not given up on the effort to bring attention to the bridge, but there comes a time when there needs to be some collaboration and help for this effort.”

Members of an all-new executive staff in the DOT this past year, including a new bridge engineer, David E. Powelson, P.E., are cautious to commit as they are still getting acquainted with the problem and history of the Vilas Bridge.

Boynton said that does not mean that his office is not aware of the concern of Rockingham residents to get the bridge prioritized.

“When you have utilities on a state structure, there has to be consideration for upgrading the bridge,” he pointed out.

Safety issues on the bridge

Powelson explained two reasons why New Hampshire is “not interested in opening [the bridge] to pedestrian use.”

First, he said, the bridge has significant “structural damage and holes [through the decking] that could hurt somebody, so it's not a good idea,”

Then, from a structural engineering point of view, “if we have a pedestrian loading on a bridge, it's about as heavy as a highway load,” Powelson said. Where pedestrian weight is concentrated in one area, driving across the bridge distributes the load over the area of the vehicle.

“This is the twisted way we engineers think,” said Powelson, noting that when designing for pedestrian-only bridges, they presume “a lot of people crowded together with a center of mass.”

“One person by themselves, the bridge won't care,” Powelson said, but he cautioned that “we can't really assume” the Vilas Bridge in its current condition is safe for even one pedestrian.

A bottom-up process

The Vilas “clearly hasn't risen to a level” where the project can break into the budget, Boynton said, describing the NH DOT's biannual process of creating a 10-year plan.

“Every two years, 16 public meetings are held,” Boynton said. New Hampshire regions and towns send in their respective priorities, all of which are taken into account.

The Southwest Region Planning Commission (SWRPC) planning agency has determined the Vilas Bridge as a regional transportation priority.

“We pass [the plan] on to committee, then executive council review, and finally to the governor,” Boynton explained. “It's a bottoms-up process,” but ultimately transportation spending priorities are based on a balance of available funds and the needs of a community.

Boynton said the recommendations the DOT receives from the planning agency are reviewed with all the other recommendations throughout the state when considering the next 10-year plan.

J. B. Mack, principal planner for SWRPC, said that Walpole officials have not seemed too concerned about returning the bridge to use, in spite of a sewer conduit beneath the bridge that connects their community to the Bellows Falls wastewater facility.

He said he was well aware of the importance of the role residents on the Vermont side see the bridge playing in their economy. But Mack cited the two other access points north and south of the village as the reason other bridges - like the Hinsdale bridge - have received priority instead.

New Hampshire owns 93 percent of all bridges spanning the Connecticut River. The state bills Vermont for the remaining 7 percent of the maintenance costs for more than 40 bridges.

Vermont has offered to pay to repair the bridge - if New Hampshire agreed to compensate the AOT for these costs by deducting it from the bill for its total share of repairs. But New Hampshire refused to go there as it does not actually save that state any money. No further offers have been made.

Beautifying the Bellows Falls side

But officials on both sides of the river say they are willing to continue to talk and consider options for the bridge, which could easily pass beyond the window of opportunity for repair.

Walsh said he had met with Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance (BFDDA) last week to propose considering a public/private option, such as the collaboration between Middlebury College and the state to rehabilitate the Cross Street bridge there.

He noted that “there may be a possibility of applying for a grant from TransCanada for $5,000, which would need to be matched, of course.”

Walsh suggested that a first step for the community might be to make the Vermont side of the bridge more appealing.

“The suggestion that I made was that the Chamber and BFDDA collaborate on a fundraiser for the cleaning up of the area at the end of the bridge on the Vermont side,” Walsh wrote in an email.

“Being a Town of Rockingham road, this would need to be coordinated with the town. And, being directly adjacent to Cota & Cota property and the power company, it would require permission, and possibly a coordinated effort, from all abutters and property owners.”

The intent “would not be to highlight any one thing, especially not to advertise the petroglyphs, or the bridge,” he said, referring to the historic Native American rock carvings south of the Vilas Bridge on the shore of the river.

Rather, Walsh pointed to an effort to “'beautify' as much as possible the area directly in front of the bridge.”

And with at least two organizations collaborating, “They could approach NH DOT about the possibility of some attempt on New Hampshire's part to do some of the cleaning as well.”

Meanwhile, the process will begin anew for the next 10-year plan, as SWRPC will begin taking testimony for the two-year review process this fall.

“The 10-year plan has not been completed and is in a legislation hearing this week,” Boynton said. Legislation to consider these priorities is expected to be approved in the New Hampshire Senate in June.

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