Thursday July 25, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- In describing plans for the new I-91 bridge in Brattleboro, Linda Figg had no problem using words like beautiful, elegant, sculpted and cathedral.

It's no accident that those who worked on the 1,036-foot-long arching concrete bridge's design talk about it in terms normally reserved for a work of art. From the deck rail to the structure's piers -- right down to viewing platforms installed on each -- designers say they've carefully considered and incorporated both the detailed opinions of a local aesthetic committee and the natural features and colors of Vermont.

"The sight of this bridge is all about the landscape," Figg told attendees at a public meeting Tuesday night in Brattleboro. "It's what you see when you're near the bridge or you're approaching the bridge. It's all about how beautiful the river is and the mountainsides coming into the river, and what you celebrate so much in this gorgeous area. So we were inspired by all of that."

Figg's company, Pennsylvania-based FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc., designed the new I-91 bridge. PCL Civil Constructors Inc., headquartered in Colorado, will begin building the span and demolishing the current bridge later this year.

The primary aim of the $60 million project, which also includes a new I-91 bridge over nearby Upper Dummerston Road, is to replace the aging, deteriorated interstate bridge over Route 30 and the West River.

But after the state's initial design suggestions were panned last year, Windham Regional Commission hastily convened a local aesthetic-evaluation committee. The committee not only provided bridge-design criteria but also met with project bidders and helped evaluate their proposals.

"It was a really compressed (schedule). VTrans didn't have to do that at all," said Chris Campany, the regional commission's executive director. The resulting design, Campany added, is "definitely not just a typical interstate bridge."

Figg took pains to point that out Tuesday. The bridge, she said, serves as an important gateway to Brattleboro and to Vermont.

"We wanted to create a bridge that would really help to reflect on nature," she said. "So this is a ‘bridge to nature,' celebrating that beauty of Vermont and Brattleboro's natural landscape."

She detailed numerous aesthetic features of the design during a presentation at Brattleboro Union High School, including:

-- When choosing color schemes, designers consulted "all the rich colors of this area," Figg said. They examined photographs of adjacent forests, the Vermont state flower (red clover), a view of downtown Brattleboro, a view across the West River from the Marina and a stone ledge off I-91.

"Nature is everywhere around this bridge, and it's celebrated in so many beautiful colors in the natural environment," Figg said. "That was the inspiration for the colors that are shared in the bridge, using the warm earth colors and also creating a few extra surprises."

-- The first state seal features a pine with 14 branches, and Figg said it was a reference point for design of the bridge's observation platforms.

-- Those platforms, Figg added, will be "very quiet" in spite of the highway overhead.

"It will be a tranquil space," she said. "You will not hear that traffic above, because the concrete has its own special dampening effects that really keep a quiet and beautiful space."

-- Bridge piers will be "sculpted, organically shaped. It is as though we looked at the base like the base of a tree," Figg said.

-- The deck's railings, while meeting crash standards, will be "open" and will allow drivers a good view of the West River Valley.

"It offers an opportunity for some new vistas, and the rail colors will come from nature," Figg said.

-- In a nod to frequent recreational use of the West River, the project will include canoe/kayak launches at each pier, officials said.

-- Figg also made comparisons with the current bridge, which is built of green-painted steel. She said the new bridge will allow for a less-obstructed view.

"Back in the day, this was the best technology at the time. Now we have new technology," Figg said. "We have new opportunities to open up that viewshed and to create spans that are longer but then also more delicate and elegant across the waterway."

She added that the new bridge will be "very strong and highly redundant and has tremendous safety components in the strength of the concrete ... it will last for well over 100 years."

At Tuesday's meeting, officials also disclosed that the local aesthetic committee's work is not finished. Project administrators will continue to consult with that committee on key questions including colors, landscaping and other matters, said Caleb Linn of PCL.

"We've developed a list of items that we feel it's important to get community feedback on -- different features," Linn said. "They'll be involved throughout."

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