GUILFORD -- A key bridge running through a Guilford population center will be closed entirely for about a month during construction, state officials have decided.
With the Route 5 bridge due to be replaced in several years, some residents had lobbied for restricted traffic patterns or a temporary bridge so those living and working on the southern side of the span would not be isolated.
But the Vermont Agency of Transportation has determined that a total closure of up to four weeks is preferable to any attempt to keep traffic flowing through the construction zone.
The decision, Senior Project Manager Chris Williams wrote in a letter to the town, is "our best attempt to balance the many constraints on this project."
"We understand that closing a bridge is a significant impact, but we have found that this approach of concentrating the work in a short period of time is generally preferable to spreading the construction work out over several months or possibly years," Williams wrote.
The 53-foot-long concrete bridge carries Route 5 drivers over Broad Brook. The span dates to 1925, and VTrans has deemed it "structurally deficient with both wing walls failing."
Also, the bridge is too narrow by modern standards, and the alignment of Route 5 south of the bridge is considered substandard.
VTrans has chosen a full replacement of the bridge rather than attempting a rehabilitation, though officials have not yet announced a year for that project. Williams has speculated that construction may not happen until 2018 or 2019.
In the meantime, VTrans is developing plans for the project. And in documents released last year, the agency plainly stated its preference for closing the bridge entirely and posting an off-site detour.
That official detour would send Route 5 traffic onto Interstate 91 from Exit 1 in Brattleboro to Exit 28 (Bernardston) in Massachusetts. Given that I-91 runs parallel to Route 5, the detour would not add distance for through traffic, officials reasoned.
The agency also has mentioned -- but did not sanction -- a "local bypass" that includes Broad Brook Road and Route 142 in Vernon.
VTrans officials argue that such detours are better options than either building a temporary bridge at the construction site or phasing construction to allow for one-way traffic through the area. Such arrangements would lengthen the project's duration and increase costs while also causing more issues on surrounding properties.
But when the agency held a public meeting on the project in December at Guilford Volunteer Fire Department, many attendees -- including residents and members of the fire department -- protested any proposed closure.
Williams noted those concerns in his recent letter to the town and to Windham Regional Commission.
"There was a lot of good discussion and many valid comments made at the meeting. The general consensus was that the bridge closure was not acceptable to the attendees, and the majority of the meeting focused on the closure and how it would affect the town," Williams wrote.
"A few people stated that they cross this bridge several times a day and feel that the additional distance on the local bypass route would be unfair to them," he added. "A considerable amount of time was spent discussing emergency response and what could be done to ensure public safety during the closure."
Williams believes, though, that "as the meeting progressed, many attendees began understanding the benefits of the bridge closure and how the option to maintain traffic on a temporary bridge would also be a significant impact to the town for a much longer period of time than the proposed closure."
Not long after the meeting, Guilford Selectboard voted 2-1 to support the state's temporary-closure plan.
State officials have discussed the public's concerns, Williams wrote. In the end, his letter says, "the decision has been made to continue with our recommended alternative and replace the bridge using a four-week maximum bridge closure while traffic is detoured onto the state roads as shown at the meeting."
The decision is "reached primarily on the extra distance to travel during the closure, the duration of the closure and whether a local bypass route is available," Williams wrote.
"For this project, the end-to-end distance on the detour route is 24.8 miles, and the end-to-end distance along the local bypass route is 6.9 miles," he wrote. "These distances are within the limits used on previous, successful projects involving bridge closures and are considered acceptable."
In response to concerns from emergency officials, Williams wrote that "it is understood and acknowledged that there could be some delay by emergency responders during the closure, but whether this is considered a significant delay and is a justifiable reason for not proposing a four-week bridge closure is the debate."
Williams said VTrans takes emergency response "very seriously" and "will continue to work with the town of Guilford and the emergency responders as the project is developed to coordinate the closure so that proper advance time is provided for planning purposes."
VTrans will hold another public meeting during the design phase "to keep the public informed about this project and to work out additional details related to the bridge closure," Williams wrote.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.