‘And it is stunning’

After a long slog to completion and initial community distress about design, the state dedicates a $60 million Interstate highway bridge

BRATTLEBORO — The new Interstate 91 bridge carries about 20,000 vehicles a day, and it's expected to do so for at least the next 100 years.

But at a dedication held Sept. 12 for the $60 million structure, the emphasis was less on the bridge's function and more on its form.

After initial controversy about the structure's design, a compromise plan crafted with community input has resulted in an award-winning, 1,036-foot-long crossing that's meant to blend with the surrounding hills while also symbolizing the state's history and natural beauty.

“Everybody worked together, and this is what we have,” said state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. “And it is stunning.”

Largest construction project since I-91

The new concrete bridge, which stretches over Route 30 and the West River, replaces two deteriorated steel bridges. Lead contractor PCL Civil Constructors also replaced a smaller I-91 bridge over nearby Upper Dummerston Road.

The job was a major undertaking. Standing beneath the new bridge, Gov. Phil Scott labeled it “the largest construction project since the interstate system was first built” in Vermont.

Caleb Linn, PCL's project manager, said he first mobilized a construction team for the project in June 2013. The company took up residence here, and Linn noted during the bridge project, “eight babies [have been] added to the PCL family,” including his second daughter and first son.

“It's safe to say that most of our team didn't expect to have children from the New England area when we started the project,” Linn said.

That line drew a laugh, but it also reflected the serious delays that PCL experienced in Brattleboro.

The project's initial schedule called for the bridge to be finished in late 2015, but that date was pushed back several times due to difficulties like permit holdups, bad weather, excavation issues, and labor shortages.

Those delays, in turn, extended the project's traffic impacts, which included backups on I-91. Officials devised an elaborate system of on-ramp closures at Exit 3 to try to alleviate that problem.

The state Agency of Transportation and PCL held extended negotiations due to the schedule change and eventually reached a settlement that reduced the project's contract value by nearly $1.38 million while protecting the state from further delay-related costs.

Linn thanked Brattleboro officials for their assistance, and he also commended VTrans for “a positive approach while we worked through sensitive challenges on this project.”

Scott also alluded to the job's difficulties. “It didn't come without its challenges,” the governor said. “What's important, though, is what we learned and improved on.”

From 'butt-ugly' to beautiful

The bridge project, in fact, ran into potential roadblocks before anyone sunk a shovel into the ground. When VTrans presented a design proposal to the community in 2012, it was widely and loudly panned.

White minced no words when recalling that controversy.

“When this design was first presented to us, it was butt-ugly,” she said. “The community said, 'Holy smokes, we can't have that design here - this is our gateway, this is a beautiful area, we're a beautiful state.'”

Windham Regional Commission led an effort to incorporate more public input into the design, and a local aesthetic-evaluation committee formed to advise VTrans and contractors.

That led to the selection of PCL and FIGG Bridge Engineers, which came up with a design dubbed “a bridge to nature.”

“Your new, one-of-a-kind bridge was designed with the community to reflect this beautiful area of Brattleboro and the great state of Vermont,” said Garrett Hoffman, a regional director for FIGG.

Generally, Linn said, contractors “enjoy building bridges with straight lines, right angles, and repetitive features. Standing here today, I would point out some of those features if I could find some.”

He added, though, that “we're proud to be leaving behind such a beautiful, high-quality structure.”

Crews shaped more than 18,000 cubic yards of concrete into a curvy, elegant bridge supported on either side of the West River by arching “cathedral piers.” Those 70-foot-tall concrete piers were built to resemble native stone, and they include observation platforms that feature design elements evoking maple, beech, and white pine trees.

The underside of the bridge was painted blue to simulate the sky, and it reflected rippling light from the West River during the Sept. 12 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro expressed gratitude for “the flexibility of VTrans in allowing us to have this design.”

The new structure, said Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee, “frames and complements the confluence of the West River going into the Connecticut River” while making a positive impression on drivers, cyclists, swimmers, boaters, and even hikers on the West River Trail.

Linn said PCL still has some pier work remaining underneath the bridge, along with “miscellaneous punch list work” above.

A 50-mph speed limit remains in effect on the new bridge, though that should change within the next few months, he said.

Even as the Brattleboro project wraps up, contractors have begun replacing another major I-91 bridge a short drive north in Rockingham.

That $44 million job is expected to extend into 2020.

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