$60M bridge to open in March

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BRATTLEBORO — In about a month, Interstate 91 drivers will get a firsthand look at a long-awaited, $60 million bridge.

According to a schedule submitted to state legislators, two northbound lanes on the new I-91 bridge in Brattleboro are expected to open March 13.

One southbound lane will be available in late April, the state Agency of Transportation's schedule says. And all four lanes finally will be open in mid-June.

Given that the project and its accompanying traffic bottleneck has lasted much longer than anyone expected, officials say they're happy that the end is near.

"I feel good about it, and I think VTrans feels good about it," said Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro and a member of the House Transportation Committee.

The House and Senate Transportation committees last week received an update from several VTrans officials on the I-91 project, which began in 2013.

Lead contractor PCL Civil Constructors has been working since then to replace a deteriorated steel bridge with a 1,036-foot-long concrete structure that arcs over Route 30 and the West River. The company also is replacing a smaller interstate bridge over Upper Dummerston Road nearby.

The bridge initially was slated for completion in late 2015, but factors including permit delays, winter weather, excavation problems and labor shortages have been blamed for pushing the work into 2017.

That means interstate traffic in the construction zone has been limited to two lanes for more than three years. VTrans officials have used a monitoring system to try and reduce bottlenecks, sometimes closing the Exit 3 on-ramps during heavy travel times.

Also, there have been sporadic lane restrictions and closures on Route 30 underneath the bridge.

Late last year, as crews prepared to join the hulking, cantilevered sections of the new bridge, PCL and VTrans administrators said they were hoping for some traffic to begin flowing over the structure in March.

That has held true, despite repeated heavy snows that have buffeted the work zone in recent weeks. Contractors are using multiple heaters to warm affected areas before performing structural work, said Eric Foster, VTrans' resident engineer on the bridge project.

"That's the downside to working in the winter: Everything's got to be up to temperature," Foster said in an interview Tuesday. "It takes a lot of extra work."

While the bridge is substantially complete, Foster stressed that there are "still a lot of little pieces to do." That includes work on supporting structural "tendons" and expansion joints, along with installation of bridge railings and median barriers.

Even after all traffic is moved to the new bridge, PCL will have more work to tackle. The biggest job is removal of the old steel span that has been bearing all interstate traffic through the area.

At this point, state officials expect that PCL will be completely finished before year's end.

The size and scope of the project is illustrated by statistics in Foster's legislative report. The bridge superstructure has required 14,000 cubic yards of concrete, and the construction site has swallowed 3 million pounds of rebar.

The unique design of the bridge - developed after aesthetic consultations with local residents - has been cited as one factor in the job's duration and difficulty. "It's obviously a really complicated project," said Burke, who toured the site last year.

That doesn't mean VTrans has taken the extended schedule in stride. Officials negotiated a settlement with PCL that reduced the contract value by $1.375 million and insulated the state from delay-related costs.

All told, the project contract now stands at $60.2 million, according to VTrans' legislative report. That's up from the original bid of $59.5 million, but officials say the increase was kept to a minimum due to the settlement agreement.

"I think the state has come out pretty well, financially," Burke said.

While acknowledging the project's complications, both Burke and Foster praised the quality of the finished product.

"This is not your ordinary highway bridge," Burke said. "This is a gateway to Vermont for a lot of people."

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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