GUILFORD -- How can students safely cross the Green River?
That's the big question for Guilford officials now that an extended schedule for Green River Covered Bridge repairs means the span will be closed to both drivers and pedestrians when school begins later this month.
There was no shortage of ideas tossed around at a Selectboard meeting Monday night, including solutions as diverse as a floating footbridge; a temporary vehicle bridge; a ford crossing reinforced by stone; and accommodations that might allow pedestrians to safely navigate the construction zone.
Town officials are looking into several options, but they set as a top priority what they see as a more-feasible idea -- use of the town-owned minibus that, given the right driver, could transport students who live on the western side of the bridge.
"I do feel that we have an obligation to try and get kids to school," Selectboard member Anne Rider said.
Town officials are considering the long-term future of the bridge as well as possible bypasses, given the historic wooden span's decreased load limit and the need for repairs including a new deck.
Manchester, N.H.-based engineering firm Hoyle, Tanner & Associates Inc. has been hired to perform a feasibility study examining the town's options. A special public meeting has been scheduled for 5 p.m. Aug. 25 at Broad Brook Grange to hear concerns and discuss alternatives as part of that study.
But there is a much more immediate concern both for the town and for residents: An unrelated wing-wall repair project has shut the covered bridge entirely, and newly discovered abutment problems mean that project has been extended through Oct.
Though it is possible the covered bridge could open to pedestrian traffic sooner than Oct. 22, no one can say when that might happen.
"We don't dare give you a guess on that at this point," Selectboard Chairman Dick Clark told residents who attended Monday night's board meeting at the grange.
The bridge closure has led to long detours following a route south into Massachusetts. But with school starting in a matter of weeks, discussion Monday night focused on how to get a handful of students who have been isolated by the bridge closure to schools in Guilford and Brattleboro.
Walking or wading across the river was one option discussed, especially if stone could be used to build up a ford. But that clearly is not suitable or possible for all families.
"I think we cannot rely on people walking. Not all of us are capable of walking that river with kids," resident Carol Jaenson said. "We have to provide something that will allow all families to get across safely."
Building a temporary structure across the river -- even a smaller footbridge -- is fraught with complications for Guilford officials, who would have to undergo a permitting process and ensure safety and handicapped-accessibility.
"If it's a town project, we are required to meet all kinds of state regulations," Rider said. "There are lots of things that would drive the cost up prohibitively."
There also are questions about using private land on either side of a temporary span, with easements and rights of way required. Impacts on wetlands are another concern.
"I don't think any of this could happen really quickly," Rider said. "I understand the frustration. I understand the concern (but) we just don't have the option to say, ‘Let's put this temporary bridge in ... let's do this now.'"
Another option briefly mentioned Monday night is working with the wing-wall contractor, Welch Masonry, to allow brief periods of pedestrian access for students each day. But the contractor is occupied at the moment with the logistics of the job itself, and Clark is not keen on allowing children into an active work zone.
"I hesitate to put any kids anywhere near that construction area," he said.
That means alternative transportation might be the most-feasible option. At the conclusion of Monday night's meeting, officials said they would look into the possibility that someone could drive the town bus -- which seats 14 -- to transport students to the eastern side of the Green River.
That may be the only solution that could be in place before the school year, officials said. But they also pledged to look into the availability of "Bailey Bridges," which are portable spans often affiliated with the military.
"We've got a lot to deal with in the next couple of weeks," Clark said.
In the meantime, he advised parents to begin making their own arrangements in case the town's plans don't pan out quickly enough.
"I would ask that the parents get together and try to come up with a contingency plan before we can get this ironed out," Clark said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.