BELLOWS FALLS -- The fight to rehabilitate and reopen the Vilas Bridge may have new life, as the Rockingham development director and certain New Hampshire state legislators testified before the N.H. House Committee on Public Works and Highways Thursday about the importance of the historic structure.
Francis "Dutch" Walsh made the drive to Concord, N.H., to explain to committee members how the bridge's closure affects both Vermont and New Hampshire and he told the Reformer he left feeling very positive about the arguments he conveyed. He said he enlightened lawmakers on the severity of the situation and the consequences of not rehabilitating the Vilas. The development director said he mentioned how the bridge -- closed since 2009 -- is vital to consumers and emergency services and how Vermont had recently made an offer to, with certain conditions, finance the necessary repairs.
The Vilas, built circa 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire, connects Walpole, N.H., to Bellows Falls. Many people are frustrated that plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. At the time it was closed, a reported 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure on an average day and Bellows Falls residents say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole has been cut off.
Walsh spoke in favor of HB 1205, a bill introduced by State Rep. John Cloutier (D-Claremont) and co-sponsored by Reps. Tara Sad, Bill Butynski, Lucy Weber and Paul Birch (all Democrats representing Walpole, Westmoreland, Chesterfield and Hinsdale). Cloutier, a member of the public works and highways committee, explained to the Reformer that the bill aims to add the Vilas back onto the 10-year state transportation improvement plan and evenly divide the rehabilitation costs. Walsh told committee members at the hearing Cloutier's bill was the first attempt by a New Hampshire state representative to resolve the matter.
"One issue that has taken a back seat to the retail business loss due to the closure of this bridge, is the very serious loss of access by emergency services (Southwestern New Hampshire Fire District Mutual Aid), to the communities on either side of the river," Walsh said. "While we are reminded over and over again that a ‘viable alternative' (the Arch Bridge) exists to crossing the river less than a mile to the north, one must experience in person how this ‘viable alternative' works when the rail road track that crosses this ‘other' bridge has a 75-car or longer freight train moving at less than 50 feet per minute.
"This is becoming more and more commonplace," he continued, "as Vermont Rail System and New England Central Railroad increase the number and size of freight trains using this ‘at-grade crossing' at the east side of the Arch Bridge."
Walsh mentioned a proposal the Vermont Agency of Transportation made to New Hampshire. Vermont recently offered to pay for the bridge's repair (estimated to cost $4.5 to $6 million) as long as New Hampshire agrees to help pay for any repairs to all other bridges spanning the Connecticut River. The Granite State, which owns 93 percent of the Vilas, would be expected to pay up to the amount it takes to fix the Vilas.
"This is an offer that may not be available later should the state of New Hampshire decline at this time. It may be the only opportunity to repair this bridge now, than being forced to fix it when this deal no longer exists," Walsh told the committee. "Rehabilitating the Vilas is not an example of money wasted, but rather an example of how limited resources for historic and critical bridges are allocated to those spans of highest value. The loss of this bridge will create a greater tension between the two states as time goes on."
It was said New Hampshire intended to reject the offer.
Walsh told the Reformer the lawmakers seemed particularly concerned when they learned a wastewater line running along the commercial district of Route 12 is attached to the underside of the bridge to transport sewage across the Connecticut River. Deterioration or demolition of the bridge could have catastrophic sanitation and environmental consequences.
"They were extremely concerned about that," he told the Reformer.
Walsh also mentioned a 1994 memorandum of agreement by the N.H. Department of Transportation to work toward long-term maintenance of the bridge. The memorandum stated the bridge would be removed "only under exceptional circumstances" but Walsh said many locals say the bridge is falling victim to "intentional demolition by neglect."
William Boynton, spokesman for NHDOT, said the memorandum "was our pledge at the time to maintain the bridge to the best of our abilities" in accordance with the state's 10-year plan, which he said does not contain any projects right now.
"We recognize the historical nature of bridge and will not remove it," he told the Reformer. He mentioned a similar situation of preservation without rehabilitation exists with the General Sullivan Bridge, which links Dover and Newington. He said it is a beautiful and historical structure that is being maintained though it is closed to traffic.
The Vilas, the only remaining double spandrel reinforced concrete bridge in the Granite State, was added to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance's Seven To Save List in October 2012.
State Historic Preservation Officer Elizabeth Muzzey explained the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires federal agencies, whenever they assisting on a project, to consider the project's adverse effects on historical resources and offer a mitigation package if the effects cannot be minimized or avoided. She said the 1994 memorandum did just that. It was drafted to help mitigate the demolition of the Kelleyville Bridge.
Cloutier told the Reformer he is the prime sponsor of HB 1205 because he is very concerned about the Vilas.
"Frankly, I think it's about time we solve this problem if we can," he said Friday afternoon.
Weber was unable to attend Thursday's hearing but sent written testimony to insist she supports any dialogue that would lead to any sort of solution. She told the Reformer the Vilas is a priority for Walpole and Bellows Falls in terms of convenience, commerce and emergency apparatus, but not for the NHDOT, which maintains there are other usable bridges nearby.
"I am only one-397ths of the New Hampshire House and half of my district (Cheshire 1) has the Hinsdale bridges (the Charles Dana and the Anna Hunt Marsh) as their biggest priority," she said. "The problem here is that New Hampshire does not have the money. ... It's horribly frustrating."
Sad, Butynski and Cloutier also testified.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.