HINSDALE, N.H. -- A project to replace the two bridges linking the town to Brattleboro, Vt., is one step closer to becoming a reality as a mandatory environmental assessment has been completed and sent to the Federal Highway Administration for final approval.
New Hampshire, Vermont and two regional planning commissions are have been pushing for a proposed Route 119 replacement bridge that would span the Connecticut River, starting near the stop light at the old WalMart location and landing near the Merrill Gas Company tank farm on Vernon Road.
No one involved with the project was sure when the two bridges, located near Brattleboro's "malfunction junction," will be built, but all said there is a lot of support for a replacement.
Dan Landry, the project manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said VTrans hired two consulting firms to conduct an assessment in the area of the tank farm, which is required to go to the FHWA before the federal government obligates money to the project.
Landry said the assessments consisted of field work to determine how various aspects, such as water quality, wetlands, recreational resources and historical resources, will be affected by the project. If the FHWA approves the assessment, it will send the agency a Finding Of No Significant Impact, or FONSI.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires an environmental document for any project, no matter its size or scale, Landry
He said extremely tiny projects are considered "categorical exclusions" while environmental assessments must be conducted when it is unknown what the environmental cost will be. When it is known what sort of effect the project will have, an environmental impact statement is required before entering the design phase.
Though the federal government can obligate money for the project at any time, preliminary engineering cannot begin until a bi-state agreement is reached between New Hampshire -- the lead on this project -- and Vermont. Dandry said a bi-state agreement is nothing more than a plan of what will be done, what work will be required of each party and what it will cost each side.
"We have a very good working relationship with New Hampshire," Landry said.
Matt Mann, a senior planner at the Windham Regional Commission, said the environmental assessment was "a big step forward" for the project.
A meeting between Southwest Region Planning Commission and the Cheshire County delegation is in the works but nothing has been planned yet.
JB Mack, a principal planner with SWRPC, said he is in the process of organizing the meeting. He said both towns are eager to develop a replacement bridge. Though it has always been a priority with the SWRPC, Mack said the project did not make it onto New Hampshire's 10-year plan in 2011.
Mack said he believes the cost of the project will run between $37 and $38 million.
"The price tag keeps fluctuating," he said.
A tight budget forced a hold on multiple infrastructure projects in the county. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation released an updated 10-year plan last year, calling for a delay of almost 50 improvements and new construction projects in the state. The plan, the Reformer previously reported, puts more than 30 major projects at risk between 2012 and 2020.
The replacement bridge was one of the projects dropped due to budget cuts, along with reconstruction of Route 12 between Walpole and Charlestown and improvements on the multi-use trail bridge between Keene and Swanzey.
Mann said there is an attempt to get the replacement bridge back onto New Hampshire's 10-year plan. He said the local governments have reconfirmed their support of finding an alternative location over the Merrill Gas tank farm, the preferred spot.
As Merrill is a private company on Depot Street, right-of-way negotiations will have to be held, Landry said. He said the existing bridges will likely be used for pedestrians.
Donald Lyford, the NHDOT's project manager, said the completion of the assessment is an important step in the right direction but the department must get a hold of the necessary money to get it done.
"We need to find funding to be able to continue with it," he said. "It all comes down to funding."
Rep. William Butynski (D-Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Winchester) said a replacement bridge will be "tremendously important" to reinvigorating the economic development of Hinsdale by bringing more traffic into the town.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.