GUILFORD -- Facing an overflowing and skeptical crowd Thursday night, VTrans engineer Chris Williams cracked a joke.

"Looks like we've got just about everybody in town here," Williams said at the outset of a public meeting on the planned replacement of the Route 5 bridge. He quickly added that his goal for the evening was to "build consensus for our recommended alternative."

That won't happen easily, if at all. State officials favor shutting the bridge entirely for a portion of the project, spurring concerns about isolating Guilford residents on the southern side of the bridge.

The state argues that closing the bridge is safer, faster and cheaper than phasing construction or building a temporary bridge. But that's small comfort to those who worry about a loss of business or, maybe more importantly, drastically slowed emergency responses.

"It's putting money before human lives. That's what you're doing," said Fred Humphrey, who serves on Guilford Volunteer Fire Department's board.

The 88-year-old concrete bridge carries Route 5 traffic into and out of Algiers Village. According to a recent state count, the average daily traffic over the bridge is 2,400 vehicles including 250 trucks. But the bridge, which crosses Broad Brook, is considered too narrow. And it is rated as "structurally deficient," with engineers particularly concerned about the substructure.

Though construction is several years away, the Vermont Agency of Transportation has drawn up plans to replace the span. And VTrans favors closing the bridge for about four weeks during the project.

That fits into the state's "accelerated bridge program," a strategy developed to address a backlog of bridge projects and a shortage of funding.

"Bridges were deteriorating faster than we could get to them. We had to do something radical," Williams said. "The idea is short-term closures. That's the key."

Closing bridges, rather than allowing partial access for drivers during construction, minimizes impacts on nearby property owners and reduces the time needed to acquire rights of way, Williams said.

Broad Brook flows under the Route 5 Bridge in Guilford. (Mike Faher/Reformer)
Broad Brook flows under the Route 5 Bridge in Guilford. (Mike Faher/Reformer)
It also cuts down on construction costs and gets jobs done much faster, he said, with the state providing financial incentives for contractors to finish ahead of schedule.

The idea is a "very tightly focused project so we can get in, do the work we have to do and get out," Williams said.

The Route 5 bridge is particularly suited to this plan, officials contend, because of space constraints at the site. For instance, the current bridge is not wide enough to accommodate a lane for traffic while construction is happening, Williams said.

And there is space only for a one-lane temporary bridge slightly upstream from the project. State officials don't like that option for several reasons, including increased right-of-way acquisition; a lengthier overall construction schedule (18 months versus six months with no temporary bridge); and a higher price tag (building a temporary bridge will cost $378,000 more).

At a public meeting Thursday at Guilford's fire station, Williams repeatedly stressed that the closure would be in effect for a maximum of four weeks. And there would be little to no school-bus impacts, as construction would happen between June 1 and Sept. 1 with town input solicited as to the best time for closure during those months.

Williams also said there would be plenty of advance notice.

"It should be impossible to not know when this is going to happen -- absolutely impossible," he said.

But there is widespread concern about closing off a key transportation link, even is that closure is only for several weeks.

The official VTrans detour would push Route 5 traffic onto Interstate 91 between Exit 1 in Brattleboro and Exit 28 in Bernardston, Mass.

For through traffic, the distance is the same on both roads. But for local drivers with destinations on the other side of the closed bridge, the inconvenience is greater.

There also is an unofficial "local bypass" utilizing Broad Brook Road and Route 142 in Vernon. That wouldn't be signed as a detour, but VTrans officials acknowledge that some drivers will travel that way.

"If you know it's there, you'll use it," Williams said. "People who don't know it's there won't use it. And that's a good thing."

Many in the crowd Thursday night were skeptical of the safety of using Broad Brook Road, which is unpaved, steep and narrow. And some said either detour will almost certainly mean a loss of business.

Alex Hogenmiller, who owns A's Auto & Truck Repair on Whipple Drive south of the Route 5 bridge, hopes his regular customers would go out of their way to reach him.

"But for potential new customers, we'd be dead in the water," Hogenmiller said.

"I'm looking after my business," he added. "I rely on people to get to my establishment here. And if they can't, easily, they're not going to."

Alice Revis is in the business of home health care as a visiting nurse. She estimates that closing the bridge will cost her several additional tanks of gas weekly. Revis also worries about how long it will take for medical assistance to reach her clients with the bridge out.

"We are talking about elderly people in our community who definitely need these services," Revis said.

That leads to a larger concern about public safety. State officials have pointed to the availability of mutual aid, whereby other nearby towns could assist Guilford while the bridge is shut.

Among those in the crowd Thursday was Vernon fire Chief Todd Capen, who pledged his department's support.

"If it came down to Guilford needing us at any time, we would go, whether it would be daytime or nighttime," Capen said.

While Guilford officials are appreciative of such support, some say it's not that easy. They point out that Guilford Volunteer Fire Department, based north of the bridge, has volunteers living and working on both sides of the span.

Guilford fire Chief Jared Bristol offered his opinion succinctly: "You need the bridge."

There was similar anxiety over the travel routes of Rescue Inc. ambulances traveling from Brattleboro.

Williams acknowledged such concerns and urged those in the crowd to "think creatively." He speculated that the state could assist local officials in placing an emergency-response vehicle south of the bridge, though there was no indication of the cost or feasibility of such a plan.

An idea that gained more traction was the use of an emergency-access ramp south of the bridge that would allow emergency responders to more-quickly access I-91.

That might require some upgrades to make the route suitable. But it is more preferable than seeing fire trucks and ambulances navigating Broad Brook Road, said state Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon-based Republican who also represents Guilford.

"The idea of an emergency vehicle going down Broad Brook ... they could do it, but they'd have to go so slow," Hebert said.

There also was talk of allowing shorter access to I-91 through the state's welcome center. But a center representative said that likely wouldn't be allowed, eliciting a jeer from the crowd.

During a meeting that lasted nearly three hours, Williams fielded sometimes-irate questions and pledged the state's assistance -- including unspecified financial compensation to the affected towns -- in figuring out such problems.

He also stressed that "your voices and your concerns will be heard." Williams offered his contact information -- 802-828-0051 or chris.williams@state.vt.us -- to anyone who has ideas or issues.

"Contact me," he told the crowd. "If you love it, if you hate it, let me know."

Williams acknowledged, though, that the final decision will be the state's. And no matter what that decision is, it won't please everyone.

"We all have these judgments on what is acceptable and what is not," Williams said.

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