Monday December 3, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- When companies submit bids next month for design and construction of a new Interstate 91 bridge in Brattleboro, a group of local residents will be taking a close look at their plans.

It’s part of an ongoing -- and some say unprecedented -- attempt to incorporate local design concerns into construction of a bridge that is expected to cost as much as $50 million and to last as long as 100 years.

"This is VTrans recognizing that there is a need for more public involvement," said Matt Mann, a senior planner at Windham Regional Commission.

"They’ve been great as a partner and collaborator," Mann added. "It’s been a good relationship."

The state Agency of Transportation earlier this year disclosed plans to replace the I-91 bridge over the West River and Route 30. Officials say the two spans are deteriorated and feature an outdated design that is too narrow.

But the state’s initial preference for a bridge design -- a simple concrete span -- met with jeers at a June meeting. Some complained that the design was not suitable for a key scenic gateway, and the regional commission sent a letter asking that VTrans seek more opinions.

"There was a concern that there needed to be a little bit more public involvement," Mann said.

That has happened through an aesthetic-evaluation committee set up after residents aired their bridge-design concerns at an August meeting in Brattleboro.


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From input at that session, officials developed a list of several design criteria:

-- The new bridge "should function as a gateway to the region and Vermont, not only to travelers on Route 30 but also to travelers on I-91." The spans "should call attention to the uniqueness of the place" and "should not be generic."

-- The bridge "should call attention to the surrounding landscape without dominating it" and must have a "less-dominant presence than the present bridge."

-- The structure "should include some form of graceful arch or arches, with a preference toward an arch or arches that are higher and tighter to the bridge deck than what currently exists." Also, those structures "should draw the eye up the valley and emphasize the surrounding landscape."

-- Guardrails should feature "equal or better transparency" than the current bridge so that motorists on I-91 can see the West River and valley. This does not preclude higher guardrails that enhance safety but still "provide outward views."

-- Construction materials should be steel and concrete, with the concrete "given the texture of stone."

-- A "muted" color is preferred to blend in with the background. Also preferred are earth tones and the use of concrete dye or stain.

-- Piers should not "encroach any further into the West River than the existing piers."

VTrans expects to award one contract covering both the design and construction of the new bridge. And the local aesthetic-evaluation committee already has met with three bidders on the agency’s "short list" for the project, Mann said.

"We discussed in detail what those (design) criteria were and how they came to be," he said, adding that the criteria also were included in VTrans’ request for proposals for the project.

The committee’s work is not yet done. When those firms submit a bid for the project, "the committee is going to score each proposal," Mann said.

Evaluation of those bids is split 50-50 between cost and technical criteria. Aesthetics will count for 20 percent on the technical side, Mann said.

"This is actually the first time for this level of public participation in a design-build project," he said.

Lew Sorenson of Dummerston is one member of the aesthetic committee. He maintains a bit of skepticism about the process, saying "only time will tell" how much local concerns factor into the state’s selection of a bridge contractor.

But Sorenson said he appreciates the effort to incorporate more public comment.

"The state doesn’t take big steps, but this is one in the right direction," he said. "The whole design-build process is new to Vermont."

Sorenson noted that the new bridge is supposed to be designed to last a century.

"So it deserves some good thought going into it on the front end for everything, whether that’s aesthetics or whatever," he said.

Along with Mann, other Windham Regional Commission staffers serving on the aesthetic committee are Executive Director Chris Campany and Planner Cullen Meves. In addition to Sorenson, residents serving on the committee are Jodi French, Jack Cunningham, Dora Bouboulis, Kate Anderson, Roger Turner, Elizabeth McLoughlin, Simrin Socci, Tom Bodett and Sue Fillion.

VTrans will award the I-91 bridge bid next year. The project also will include rehabilitation of the nearby I-91 spans over Upper Dummerston Road, and all major construction is expected to happen in 2014 and 2015.

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