BELLOWS FALLS - About 20 citizens showed up to a special meeting on Thursday to voice their disappointment in New Hampshire over the redevelopment of a bridge that stretches across the Connecticut River to connect Vermont with its eastern neighbor.
The Vilas Bridge, a three-span reinforced-concrete open spandrel arch owned by New Hampshire, was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009 and locals are frustrated that plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. At the time it was closed, a reported average of 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure every day and village residents say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been cut off.
A panel including Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee, Municipal Manager Timothy Cullenen, Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh and a couple of officials from the two states met in the Lower Theatre of the Rockingham Town Hall to address the issue and eventually opened up the floor to questions.
According to a 1993 letter from Charles O’Leary, the then-commissioner of the N.H. Department of Transportation, to Nancy C. Muller, then the director and state preservation officer for the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, the Vilas Bridge would be removed only under exceptional circumstances (natural disasters creating a serious safety hazard or another unforeseen situation).
Dave Scott, the in-house design chief for the NHDOT and one of
Lamont Barnett, the owner of The Rock and Hammer jewelry store in The Square, said during the public question portion that he wants Scott to tell his boss when he returns to Concord, N.H., that neglect is not an exceptional circumstance as described in O’Leary’s letter.
The bridge is scheduled to be rehabilitated or replaced in 2015 in New Hampshire’s Ten Year Transportation Plan, but it appears it might be deferred for up to an additional seven years.
MacPhee started the meeting by saying the bridge’s closing is having a negative effect on both sides of the river.
Scott said an engineer has determined the bridge, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, is savable even though the deck is not.
"The deck is shot," he said.
After Mike Hedges -- the structures program manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation and one of the government officials at the meeting -- spoke for a few minutes, MacPhee asked the public if anyone had something to say.
Rosemarri Roth, executive director of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, stood up to address Scott. She reminded him that the Vilas Bridge is the last of its kind in the state.
"There aren’t any more like it in the state of New Hampshire, or anywhere," she said before asking if any federal funding can be secured to fix the bridge, for the sake of historical preservation.
Scott admitted it is a beautiful piece of engineering but said there are a lot of historical places in New Hampshire that need preservation and not enough money to go around.
Later in the meeting, she went so far as to suggest starting a movement called "Let’s Take Back The Bridge," as a means of making progress in motion and motivating New Hampshire to rearrange its priorities.
Barnett said his business is greatly affected by the bridge’s closure. He said half of his customers come from Walpole.
"The No. 1 complaint is that bridge being closed," he said. "So it’s not just Bellows Falls that is suffering. Traffic does go the other way."
BFDDA President Katie Dearborn expressed a similar concern and said something needs to be done quickly.
Toward the end of the meeting, Cullenen said he took the photographs of the bridge that were displayed on a pull-down screen via a computer prior to the start. He said he noticed a lot of trash around the bridge and asked Scott if the NHDOT would agree to clean it up in attempt to increase some foot traffic by bringing over pedestrians interested in admiring the beautiful scenery.
Scott said the department won’t do that because the deck is not safe for pedestrians. Cullenen informed him that people walk across the bridge every day.
Scott wrote down notes the entire meeting and said he would speak to his superiors about all comments, complaints and suggestions made at the meeting.
MacPhee mentioned earlier in the meeting that 7 percent of the bridge is in Vermont.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.