BELLOWS FALLS -- Village residents heading to Walpole, N.H., may notice their trip across the Arch Bridge is much less illuminated than it used to be.
That's because the New Hampshire Department of Transportation is shutting off what it calls non-essential lights on state-maintained roads in response to severe budget limitations. Bill Boynton, the public information officer with NHDOT, told the Reformer this process started about two years ago as a cost-saving measure.
"We had our utility budget at the DOT virtually cut in half. That was a couple of years ago," he said, adding the Arch Bridge's lights were turned off on Friday, Nov. 27. "It was driven mostly by costs. But many lights were put up for want, rather than need."
Boynton said New Hampshire owns nearly all of the Arch Bridge.
There are roughly 3,000 lights on roads maintained by New Hampshire and each one costs about $30 a month to illuminate, he said. While there are no federal requirements for lighting on bridges, Boynton said, the state is abiding by national lighting standards.
"Everything is being reviewed on a case-by-case basis and it's a lengthy process," he said, mentioning a bridge on New Hampshire Route 18 was deemed essential. "For the most part, lighting on bridges is for aesthetics, and not required for highway safety."
Members of the Rockingham Selectboard and the public were told about the discontinuance of the lights when Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II mentioned it in his manager's report during a Selectboard meeting on Dec. 3. Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee facetiously asked Stearns if the state was shutting off the lights to save money to repair the Vilas Bridge, which also connects the village to Walpole and has been closed to vehicular traffic in 2009, much to the dismay of local residents.
MacPhee told the Reformer he was shocked to hear Stearns' news.
"That sounds crazy to me, because it is a safety issue," he said when told about Boynton's explanation. "I'm very surprised they picked the Arch Bridge as non-essential."
There is a three-way stop where the bridge touches down in Vermont.
Though he understands NHDOT's need to save money, the chairman said the Selectboard may draft a letter to send to NHDOT to inquire about its rationale behind the decision.
In defense of the state's discontinuance of the lights, Boynton said there were also plenty of complaints about light pollution -- or excessive artificial light -- from residents on the New Hampshire side of the bridge. He also said many towns and cities affected by the discontinuance have the option of taking on the responsibility of financing and maintaining the lights.
Rockingham Highway Supervisor Mike Hindes said he noticed one of the light bulbs over the Arch Bridge was out about a year ago and reached out to NHDOT to replace it, which he does not believe was done. He said he got an e-mail last week from a NHDOT representative about the lights' discontinuance.
The few lights on the Anna Hunt Marsh Bridge and Charles Dana bridges, which link Brattleboro to Hinsdale, N.H., and the ones illuminating the road in between them will not be affected by the budget cuts because the electricity is funded by the town of Hinsdale.
There are no lights on the United States Navy Seabees Bridge, which connects Brattleboro and Chesterfield, N.H.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.