Saturday July 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A $60 million project to replace the aging, deteriorated Interstate 91 bridge over Route 30 and the West River is scheduled to begin later this year.

The two companies charged with designing and building the new span say they have created "a signature gateway bridge that would capture the beauty of Vermont" -- a response to aesthetic concerns expressed by a number of locals.

Residents can get a glimpse of that design and hear detailed project information at a public meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Brattleboro Union High School's multipurpose room.

"This is an important project for Vermont, and we are pleased to see it getting off to such a strong start," Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said in a statement e-mailed to the Reformer.

"Thanks to the collaborative approach of this design/build team and the active participation of the community, we will be replacing these aging structures with something that brings the latest engineering innovations in a way that is in harmony with the West River," Searles added.

The "harmony" Searles references was a key issue that arose last year when state Agency of Transportation officials first disclosed a "baseline design concept" for the new bridge.

They proposed replacing the iconic green steel bridge -- which is more than 50 years old and is considered structurally deficient -- with a simple concrete structure.

But that design was panned, with one local planner calling it "unacceptable." At a June 2012 public meeting, a resident remarked that the proposed bridge design "looks like something that belongs in New York City or Cleveland or Missouri."

Windham Regional Commission sent a letter asking that VTrans seek more public input, and the commission subsequently led an August meeting at which residents aired their bridge-design concerns and preferences.

The effort did not end there: A list of design criteria was drawn up, and a local aesthetic-evaluation committee was formed to meet with project bidders and to help evaluate their proposals.

"This was something that VTrans had not done before," said Matt Mann, a Windham Regional Commission senior planner. "Kudos to them for being open to this."

The state has selected two companies to undertake the project, which also includes replacement of the nearby, smaller I-91 bridges over Upper Dummerston Road.

Exton, Pa.-based FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc. is designing the new bridges, while PCL Civil Constructors Inc. -- headquartered in Denver -- is handling construction.

In a joint statement, the companies recounted an October meeting with the aesthetic-evaluation committee.

"The committee challenged the team to create a bridge that would serve as an icon to the community and ‘Gateway to Vermont' but at the same time blend in with the beautiful surroundings. It was suggested that the community wanted a structure worthy of a postcard," company administrators said.

"As a result of that meeting, the PCL/FIGG Team was inspired to create a signature gateway bridge that would capture the beauty of Vermont," the statement said. "'A Bridge to Nature' served as a theme for the team to use as a guide in the design of a remarkable new bridge."

The result is a single, 1,036-foot-long arching concrete bridge over Route 30 and the West River.

The structure will be 104 feet wide and will carry all four lanes of traffic while also including inside and outside safety shoulders. The current bridge uses separate spans to accommodate northbound and southbound traffic, and officials have said it is too narrow by today's safety standards.

Interstate 91 bridge over the West River and Route 30 in Brattleboro. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Interstate 91 bridge over the West River and Route 30 in Brattleboro. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

The new bridge will stand on 70-foot piers, each of which will feature a walkway to a viewing platform as well as nearby kayak/canoe launches.

Mann said the local aesthetic-evaluation committee "did a great job" in communicating the design priorities expressed by residents and officials.

"Based on the overall criteria that was sent out, this bridge encompasses it," Mann said.

However, he also noted that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"A lot of it is going to be very subjective -- that's the nature of aesthetics," Mann said.

Those who attend Tuesday's meeting will get a chance to air those aesthetic options and ask questions about the project. Representatives of VTrans, FIGG and PCL are expected to attend, and there is a question-and-answer session scheduled for the end of the meeting.

Information will include details of the project's schedule, which will stretch from fall of this year to summer 2016. The new bridges over Route 30 and Upper Dummerston Road are expected to open to traffic by late 2015, though some construction work will remain after that.

The design/build companies say they have structured their schedule to "minimize inconvenience to the traveling public and maximize driver safety."

A summary distributed by the companies addresses planned traffic restrictions and detours:

-- On I-91, both northbound and southbound traffic will be reduced to single lanes this fall and will remain that way through most of 2015.

Administrators said they will use "smart work zone technology" to relay information about current traffic conditions to interstate travelers via message boards.

Also, traffic information and live video feeds will be available on the project's website, www.I91BrattleboroBridge.com.

-- On Route 30 and Upper Dummerston Road, traffic "will only be restricted for short durations with alternating one-way flow under flagger control or brief full closures during activities that require construction overhead," the companies said.

Those traffic restrictions "will be limited to nighttime and/or off-peak hours" whenever possible.

Administrators said they envision restricted access on Route 30 during winter 2013/14, fall 2014 and winter 2015/16. Restricted access on Upper Dummerston Road, where a new, 85-foot-long I-91 bridge will be built, is scheduled for winter 2013/14, summer 2015 and fall 2015.

-- The West River trail will serve as a construction access for the new bridge over Route 30, the companies said.

However, administrators are pledging to "work diligently to maintain safe access through the trail right of way with minimal disturbances for trail users."

"Any construction activities near the trail will be communicated by means of mass e-mail, social media and physical postings at the trail entrances," the companies said. "The safety of the public using the West River Trail during construction activities will not be compromised, and separation between construction traffic and (trail) users will be provided."

Temporary full closures of the trail will be necessary at certain times, but those will be coordinated with the Friends of the West River Trail, administrators said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.