BELLOWS FALLS - One of the three New Hampshire state representatives addressing the governing boards of Rockingham and Bellows Falls Tuesday told local officials he plans to propose a bill that would evenly split the cost of rehabilitating the Vilas Bridge.
John Cloutier, D-Claremont, said he filed a legislative service request (LSR), which he described as "a bill in the making," and the topic will come up for discussion in the New Hampshire House of Representatives when it is back in session. The spirit of the LSR is for Vermont and New Hampshire to each contribute 50 percent of the money needed for the bridge, which closed in 2009.
Cloutier, the vice chairman of House Public Works and Highways Committee, was joined by Rep. Tara Sad, D-Walpole, and Rep. Bill Butynski, D-Hinsdale, Chesterfield and Winchester, in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre on Tuesday. He told members of the Rockingham Selectboard and Bellows Falls Board of Trustees his state is aware of area dismay over the bridge being out of commission.
Built circa 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire, the Vilas Bridge was closed by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in 2009 following a semi-annual inspection that found continued deterioration of the reinforced bridge deck. Residents and business owners in Rockingham have grown increasingly frustrated that plans to repair or replace the 635-foot structure have been deferred. At the time it was closed, a reported average of 4,600 vehicles crossed the Vilas each day and village residents say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been cut off.
Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh, who introduced the legislators, said all three graciously offered their time by visiting Bellows Falls but were not there to answer questions or defend New Hampshire's decision to close the Vilas.
Cloutier said he understands locals are upset about the bridge's closure and acknowledged that businesses have likely taken a hit because of it. He said he sympathizes with the concerns and is determined to help. He said New Hampshire's highway fund is under a lot of pressure right now and the cost of things like concrete and asphalt have gone up since the state last increased its gas tax in 1991.
He said he loves the Vilas Bridge and wants to see it rehabilitated. He added that bringing it back to its former usable glory would boost the local economy and create area construction jobs.
Sad cautioned that even if Cloutier's LSR eventually becomes a law, there is no guarantee New Hampshire will cough up the money for its 50 percent contribution. She also acknowledged that the Arch Bridge is just sixth-tenths of a mile away from the Vilas and is perfectly suitable for use.
Butynski told board members that showing support for an effort to build a casino in New Hampshire would benefit their cause, as it could generate a lot of revenue for the state. New Hampshire, which has no state income or sales tax, occasionally lacks funds for certain projects. Butynski is also an advocate for the construction of a new bridge to replace the Charles Dana and Anna Hunt Marsh bridges that link Hinsdale with Brattleboro, Vt.
Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee told the lawmakers that any members of the two boards would be more than happy to attend any meetings or events in New Hampshire to advocate their cause.
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