HINSDALE, N.H.— The historic Vilas Bridge linking Walpole to Bellows Falls is crumbling into the Connecticut River, closed in 2009 with no real plan to replace it.
Meanwhile, traffic across the Anna Hunt Marsh and Charles Dana bridges, which link Hinsdale to Brattleboro, Vt., continues unabated.
The bridge in Walpole is not on New Hampshire's 10-year plan because a perfectly suitable bridge crosses the river just a few miles north, reasons the Granite State's Department of Transportation. But the bridge in Hinsdale is one of the busiest in the region. It's also one of the most narrow — just one semi-truck short of a snarl that could lock up traffic for hours. In the state's 10-year plan, construction to replace those bridges is scheduled to start two years earlier — 2017 — than in the previous 10-year plan, which is updated every two years.
"The 10-year plan is never written in stone," said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the N.H. DOT. "It is based upon available resources. Projects move up in the line or are removed if they are not necessary."
While the Vilas Bridge is not in the newest plan, he said, it doesn't mean the state has abandoned the idea of replacing it.
"We don't want to minimize the concerns that have been expressed by the community. We understand the bridge is very important to them, but the fact is there is another bridge in close proximity and that changes the nature of prioritization."
The Hinsdale-to-Brattleboro bridges however, serve a unique purpose that can't be substituted by other river crossings. It's either drive north to Chesterfield and cross the United States Navy Seabees Bridge at the Exit 3 roundabout, or travel south to Northfield, Mass., cross the river there and then travel north to Brattleboro on Route 142 or Interstate 91.
Even though that bridge project has been moved up to 2017, said Boynton, there are still some details to be ironed out. The Anna Hunt Marsh and Charles Dana bridges may remain for pedestrians or they may be demolished altogether. And then there is a question about the landing of the new bridge in Vermont. The plan calls for it to be built at the flashing traffic light at George's Field on the New Hampshire side, connecting to Route 142 just south of the Marlboro College Graduate Center. Boynton said issues with the railroad and propane tanks have to be dealt with before the plans can be finalized.
In Bellows Falls, an offer was made two years ago by Vermont to finance the bridge's rehabilitation, as long as the state of New Hampshire would agree to pay for repairs to all other bridges spanning the Connecticut River, up to the total cost to rebuild the Vilas Bridge. The Granite State declined the offer.
The bridge project in Hinsdale is expected to cost more than $40 million and would be financed with Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle — or GARVEE — bonds issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation. According to the DOT's website, a GARVEE "is a type of anticipation vehicle, which are securities (debt instruments) issued when moneys are anticipated from a specific source to advance the upfront funding of a particular need. In the case of transportation finance the anticipation vehicles' revenue source is expected Federal-aid grants."
Despite the assurances from New Hampshire, Chip Stearns, the municipal manager for Rockingham, doesn't believe the bridge will ever be fixed or replaced.
"It's got to be important to New Hampshire before they fix it, but like everybody else, they are so far behind in infrastructure repairs," he said. "Someone over in Concord is not going to be concerned about Bellows Falls while just north of the Vilas Bridge is a new bridge that can be used to cross the Connecticut River."
However, said Stearns, what is being missed — or ignored — by the Granite State, is a sewer line attached to the bridge that delivers septage from Walpole to the waste water treatment plant in Bellows Falls. "It belongs to the town of Walpole and the state needs to have an emergency plan in case the bridge collapses and the pipe spews sewage into the Connecticut River. Someone ought to be concerned."