BRATTLEBORO -- Given one last chance to weigh in on the design of a key gateway bridge, more than 30 residents spent Thursday night discussing, debating and even drawing their ideas.
They settled on a key word -- "minimal."
Meeting attendees said the new Interstate 91 bridge over Route 30 should be a "minimalist" concrete span that features some arching but only "minimally" obstructs the view of the landscape for drivers on either road.
Local planners now will send that formula to the state Agency of Transportation, and one official said he was impressed by the outcome of a two-hour meeting on a controversial topic.
"It was a very civil meeting with good discussion," said Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director. "And there seemed to be some consensus."
When VTrans officials a few months ago disclosed their preferred bridge design -- a simple concrete span -- the consensus was that it was unacceptable for a scenic gateway to the West River Valley.
The commission had organized Thursday's session after Campany sent a letter to VTrans requesting that there be more public input on bridge design.
"We volunteered to help with that process," Campany said, adding that commission officials were "really glad that VTrans responded positively to it."
But the commission also is working under severe time constraints: While major construction is scheduled for 2014 and 2015, the state is advertising
That means Windham Regional officials have only until Aug. 22 to come up with design criteria to submit to VTrans.
"Oftentimes, this process can take years," Campany said. "To say this is expedited is an understatement."
It doesn't help that aesthetics are highly subjective. That was clear early in Thursday's session when a question about the current bridge, a steel-arched span, elicited a variety of responses:
-- "I like the arching."
-- "It's scary to be walking underneath it."
-- "I think it's graceful."
-- "I find it very obstructive. This mass of metal of very dated."
There was more agreement, though, when officials next asked what "presence" the new bridge should have.
A show of hands revealed a majority in favor of the words "minimal" and "recessive," while there was little or no support for "substantial" and "dominating."
At the same time, the group did not favor a design as minimal as the initial VTrans proposal.
"Too many of our modern bridges today are almost invisible as bridges," said Lew Sorenson of Dummerston, a town heavily represented at Thursday's meeting.
Sorenson added that bridge designers should "make sure that they do make a statement, but that it's the right statement."
Safety also was a concern. State officials have said the current bridge is too narrow, and that was seconded by Dummerston Town Clerk Pam McFadden.
"That bridge terrifies me," McFadden said.
State Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney-based Democrat, said she wants the new span to offer unobstructed views. But as a driver, she also is seeking more security.
"I don't want to feel like I'm going to drive off the bridge," White said.
The evening closed with participants organizing into four groups armed with a list of questions and a pen-and-ink depiction of the Route 30 gateway with the I-91 bridge removed.
"This is your canvas," Campany said. "Try to think beyond what's there now."
Nicolas Wallaert, an East Dover resident, said his group came up with a concrete design that was "very simple, with two arches." From Route 30, he said, the span should project "definitely a gateway feel -- welcome to the West River."
The other groups, with some variances, discussed similarly simple, arched, concrete bridges. They sought to soften the color and shape of the state's design.
"We didn't want just right angles," said Herb Rest of Dummerston.
It is unclear how many of those suggestions will be incorporated when state officials develop bid specifications for the project. VTrans representatives have said cost is a factor, since the project already carries a price tag that could reach $50 million.
Matt Mann, a Windham Regional Commission senior planner, noted that a local "aesthetic evaluation committee" will play an ongoing role in the process.
"We'll be meeting with the short list of design-build firms in October," Mann said.
Officials also have said that committee will help to review and score bridge proposals as they arrive.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.