Traffic (shown here heading south toward Exit 3) was backed up for miles on I-91 Sunday after the highway was closed because the bridge over the West River
Traffic (shown here heading south toward Exit 3) was backed up for miles on I-91 Sunday after the highway was closed because the bridge over the West River that is being removed was leaning slightly. (Howard Weiss-Tisman/Reformer)

BRATTLEBORO -- Public safety was cited as the main reason for the unexpected closure of the Interstate, between Exits 1 and 3, Saturday night through Sunday night, after "slight shifting" on the northbound bridge occurred during demolition. The closure lasted until just before 11 p.m., Sunday night, and created a traffic nightmare for travelers.

"We weren't anticipating it being closed as long as it was. We had to make sure it was safe," said Eric Foster, VTrans resident engineer on the project.

After the slight movements were first detected, Saturday, the contractor and engineer did an analysis using a model for calculations.

"That told them how to jack the bridge back into place and what they needed to do to restrain the bridge from further movement," said Vermont Agency of Transportation Construction Engineer David Hoyne. "They did repairs. When it was complete, the engineer was consulted. Based on some information, he was able to determine the bridge was stable at its current place."

Hoyne told the Reformer that the northbound bridge was the only structure that moved. The existing bridge which carries southbound traffic did not.

However, until it was determined what the structure's shifting meant for the entire project, both lanes of the bridge were closed.

The bridge was closed in coordination with the Vermont Agency of Transportation. According to a press release, concerns encountered during the demolition were fully addressed before the bridge's reopening.

PCL Marketing Manager Natalie Bugg told the Reformer that during demolition phases, scheduling can be difficult to predict.

Project managers had expected to have the bridge opened again on Sunday morning but it took more time to assess the situation. Traffic from both lanes on I-91 were sent through Brattleboro to downtown streets. Canal Street and Route 5 were among the roads that were most backed up.

Brattleboro Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said he believed project managers had done the right thing.

"There was a plan worked out to reroute traffic around the bridge in an emergency situation like this," he added. "It's not surprising to me there was traffic congestion. We were able to identify a route for traffic but to expect that it would be a congestion-free route would probably be unrealistic."

There were reports of traffic causing massive delays and local police presence at the scene was questioned.

"The bridge closure was forced and not optional," said Vermont State Police Troop D Commander Captain Ray Keefe. "Resources were in place and no emergencies were left unhandled. Any time there is a forced closure or delay such as occurred here, there is understandable frustration by motorists and we of course did everything we could to mitigate such frustrations."

According to Bugg, the project is on schedule and the portion of I-91 that was closed is expected to remain open.

"We're back on track," she said.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.