BRATTLEBORO -- Replacing the Interstate 91 bridge over Route 30 will take more than two years of construction and is expected to cost $50 million, officials said Monday.
But at a Vermont Agency of Transportation public meeting, most questions had nothing to do with road closures or detours.
Instead, residents wanted to know why state officials are leaning toward a basic concrete bridge design that some deem "unacceptable" for a gateway to the scenic, tourist-friendly Route 30 corridor.
"This looks like something that belongs in New York City or Cleveland or Missouri," said Jody Normandeau of Dummerston. "It doesn’t look like something that belongs in Vermont."
In response, officials said they would consider such concerns but also warned that a different design could make the project prohibitively expensive.
"This was our attempt to balance costs with aesthetics," said Wayne Symonds, a VTrans structures design engineer.
The 52-year-old bridge, which consists of two separate spans over the West River and Route 30, is slated for replacement because it is considered structurally deficient.
Slides shown at Monday’s meeting, held at Brattleboro Union High School, included photos of exposed rebar and rusted steel. Project administrators also noted that the current bridge is too narrow by today’s standards.
"That’s a safety concern, as well," said Mark Colgan, engineering services
While replacement will cost about $50 million, rehabilitation could cost $35 million. And that does not factor in ongoing maintenance costs for an aging bridge.
"The replacement option seemed to make much more sense in the long term," Colgan said.
Replacement will be carried out by a private "design/build" team handling both design and construction. That is expected to expedite the job.
"It definitely saves a lot of time and saves a lot of cost, and it promotes innovation," Colgan said.
That does not mean, however, that state officials will allow contractors to determine all aspects of the project. They’re already setting some parameters and defining how the massive project should proceed:
* Traffic will keep flowing on I-91 throughout the project via a "crossover" approach, meaning both northbound and southbound traffic will use one span while work happens on the other.
For the first construction season, that means one lane in each direction. But in the second season, when traffic switches to the first of the new bridge spans, officials expect to allow two lanes in each direction.
That’s because each of the new spans will be 50 feet wide compared with the 30-foot width of the current spans.
* State officials now expect to incorporate another bridge into the project. The nearby -- and much shorter -- span that carries I-91 over Upper Dummerston Road will be rehabilitated at the same time.
* Seeking to alleviate concerns about detours, officials said they will work to allow only relatively short, sporadic closures of Route 30 and Upper Dummerston Road during the project.
Such schedules will take into account local concerns and events, officials said, adding that they also may have to prohibit recreation on that portion of the West River if bridge construction above poses a risk.
"Obviously, the West River is a very key natural resource down here," Colgan said.
* Also, project administrators aren’t leaving the new bridge design to chance. They’ve settled on a "baseline design concept" that would replace the arched steel bridge with a simple concrete structure.
Advantages, officials said, include relatively low-impact construction, durability, ease of inspection and low levels of long-term maintenance. Durability is a key requirement, with Symonds saying "the concrete that we’re using today is not the same as what we used 50 years ago."
"We are requesting in the proposal that the design team look to get 100 years of life" from the new bridge," Symonds said.
That raised eyebrows for the wrong reasons. Matt Mann, a Windham Regional Commission senior planner, said he was not sure the concrete bridge was a suitable legacy for future generations.
"If we’re talking 100 years, let’s try to push the envelope a little more," Mann said.
He added: "I think this is unacceptable."
Dummerston resident Ed Anther agreed, saying the bridges in the Route 30 corridor "are an essential part of the experience of going up and down the West River Valley."
He compared the state’s baseline design to a "big white canvas," whereas the current bridge allows motorists to see through its girders to the hillside behind.
Colgan, though, said "money is an issue in everything we do" in transportation planning.
"We looked at some arch options," he said. "Really, it came down to cost."
Also, there is the question of what defines "aesthetically pleasing." After one meeting attendee said he had no problem with a concrete bridge, Symonds noted that dilemma.
"Everybody does have a different sense of aesthetics, and that makes our job difficult," he said.
Time is a factor, as well. Officials are facing a September deadline to lock in or possibly lose federal funding for the project.
"This is very accelerated," Colgan said.
The state already has issued a "request for qualifications" to be submitted by those companies that may be interested in the process. Officials will whittle down those submissions to a "short list" and then issue a request for design/construction proposals in August.
A contract will be awarded in June 2013, with some minor work possibly starting later in the year, officials said. Major construction would happen in 2014 and 2015.
All of which means there is not much time to settle on a basic concept for the new bridge structure. But Colgan pledged that the aesthetic concerns raised at Monday’s meeting won’t be ignored.
"We’re going to go back and think about how we’re going to address these comments," he said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.