The new Hinsdale-Brattleboro bridge, as seen from the Charles Dana Bridge just upstream over the Connecticut River.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
The new Hinsdale-Brattleboro bridge, as seen from the Charles Dana Bridge just upstream over the Connecticut River.

In Brattleboro, big doings on the riverfront

In the shadow of the new Hinsdale-Brattleboro bridge, work begins on a new train station

BRATTLEBORO-After years of big plans for the downtown riverfront without much follow through, local residents are seeing two big projects take shape along the Connecticut River.

The bigger project - the new $61.2 million General John Stark Memorial Bridge that will link Hinsdale, New Hampshire to Brattleboro, is in the homestretch.

If all goes well, the bridge will be open to vehicular traffic by the end of November. It will replace a pair of century-old steel truss bridges.

The newer project, a $15 million Amtrak station on Depot Street, has just begun. It is expected to be finished in 2026, and will give rail passengers a new waiting area and a 345-foot-long, accessible platform.

Local officials celebrated a groundbreaking for the new train station on June 24 while, just a few hundred yards away, workers continued construction of the new highway bridge.

Once completed, these two projects will reshape Brattleboro's waterfront.

A new 'front door'

Ever since the resumption of passenger rail service in Brattleboro by Amtrak in 1972, travelers have had to make do with a cramped waiting area in the former baggage room of Union Station.

With the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center taking up the rest of the historic 1915 train depot - which narrowly escaped the wrecking ball after train service seemingly ended for good in 1966, it was the only space available. Passengers also have to climb up to board the train, since there is no accessible platform at the current station.

The new Amtrak station, which is being built directly across the tracks from the old Union Station, addresses both problems.

The high-level platform, now mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, allows passengers to move between the platform and the train without climbing up or down steps. It's the first such platform of its kind in Vermont. And the passengers that arrive and depart from Vermont's second busiest train station will finally have a comfortable waiting area with accessible rest rooms.

Calling train stations "a front door to a community," David Handera, chief accessibility officer for Amtrak, said the new station will be "a fully accessible and compliant station" that will serve as "an outstanding front door welcome mat to the residents, to the passengers, to the visitors coming to Brattleboro."

Funding came from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was passed in Congress on a bipartisan vote in 2021 and signed into law by President Joe Biden. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., admitted that the station project took a long time to come together.

"You pass the law, then you've got to get the design, you've got to get the architects, you've got to get the earth-movers," said Welch.

While the process can seem slow, he said the payoff was in "reminding us of the communities we live in. It's about giving us a sense of inspiration that together we can do great things when we share that journey together."

State Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said local leaders had been talking with Amtrak since the mid-2010s about getting a new station.

At first, the plan was to build an accessible platform in front of the 1915 station, but, she said, "after finding out the cost of adapting the station platform site and moving an electrical pole, Amtrak decided to build us an entire station on the east side of the tracks. And despite some complications, here we are today."

The town has already contributed to the station project by building a new parking area on Depot Street. Amtrak will pay for the construction of the station.

The state, federal, and local officials on hand for the ceremony all talked about the collaboration that helped get the station project off the ground.

There is one other critical piece: cooperation with the operators of the freight railroad that shares use of the line with Amtrak.

Charles Hunter, assistant vice president of government affairs for the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, which operates the New England Central and Berkshire and Eastern railroads, said the G&W's engineering staff "were able to come to a mutual solution that works for everyone"

By rebuilding a siding track opposite the current station, Hunter said, Amtrak "will be able to do all the boarding and deboarding on the track on this side of the station. So that's a big win for safety, and that really shows how we're able to work together to get things done."

State Sen. Wendy Harrison (D-Windham) hailed the station project as being another step toward "a new heyday" for passenger train travel in Vermont.

"Transportation has always been fundamental to economic growth," she said. "Our state rail plan calls for more station improvements and increased service. If you could take a train from Brattleboro to New York [City] and be back the same day, we'd see even more folks relocating to Vermont."

Steady progress on bridge

People traveling across the Charles Dana and Anna Marsh bridges from Brattleboro can see how much progress has been made on the new John Stark Bridge since work began in 2022 on the long-delayed project.

According to news releases from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), all the support piers are now in place, the last bit of structural steel was laid down in May, and deck panels for the roadway have begun to be installed.

Despite delays caused by shortages in workforce and materials, work crews have made up some of the lost time this spring - enough so that the bridge is expected to be open for traffic by the end of November.

No formal opening date has been announced by VTrans or the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, which is charge of construction on that side of the river.

While cars will likely be using the bridge late this fall, VTrans says the finishing touches on the bridge, such as landscaping, will not be completed until June 2025.

Federal funding covers 8% of the bridge construction budget. New Hampshire will pick up most of the cost of the remaining 20%, since it has jurisdiction over the Connecticut River.

The Dana and Marsh bridges will be converted to pedestrian-only use once the Stark Bridge opens.

This News item by Randolph T. Holhut was written for The Commons.

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