Funding concerns delay Newfane bridge projects
NEWFANE -- Town officials and residents spent months navigating through the destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.
These days, they're spending much of their time navigating through governmental regulations.
Selectboard members have delayed reconstruction projects for two bridges destroyed by Irene while they seek answers on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's willingness to pay for those projects.
The main concern is that Newfane might build larger, upgraded bridges that FEMA deems ineligible for full reimbursement, leaving the town holding the bill.
"The town is caught between state regulations that are required and what the federal government is willing to reimburse," Selectboard Chairman Jon Mack said. "We're having difficulty getting clearer direction from both the state and from FEMA."
The issue has become familiar across Vermont. A high-profile example occurred in Townshend, where officials in the wake of Irene built an improved culvert that complied with state standards.
But FEMA ruled that the state culvert standard was not considered reimbursable under federal law, and Townshend was forced to fold the resulting debt into its fiscal year 2014 budget.
With the state providing assistance on a second appeal, Townshend won a reversal from FEMA a few weeks ago and now will receive full reimbursement. But at the time, federal officials were careful to say that they had granted a waiver that applied only to the Townshend culvert.
FEMA spokesman David Mace on Friday said the agency is sorting through about 60 Vermont culvert projects that may or may not qualify for full reimbursement in light of the Townshend decision and after "additional guidance" was provided by the agency's headquarters.
For that reason -- along with the fact that they're dealing with bridge projects, not culverts -- Newfane officials are cautious about drawing any conclusions from the Townshend case.
"That doesn't mean the rest of us are going to prevail, because it's an individual appeal process," Newfane Selectboard member Christine Druke said at a Thursday meeting.
In fact, neither of the town's proposed projects -- Hunter Brook Bridge and Lynch Bridge -- have been denied full reimbursement by FEMA. In the case of Lynch Bridge, there isn't even a design for a new span.
But officials are concerned. They know that the new Hunter Brook Bridge will not look the same as the former bridge given Irene's alteration of the stream channel.
"The river is wider than it was, and it takes a longer bridge to get across," Mack said. "It's going to be longer and probably wider, too."
That also may be the case with Lynch Bridge, which, like Hunter Brook, had been situated off Dover Road.
Given the uncertainty, the Selectboard on Thursday again delayed opening bids for building a new Hunter Brook Bridge and removing a temporary span at the site.
The bid opening was rescheduled for April 18.
"What is going on right now is, we took the set of plans, they're back up at the (state) Agency of Transportation," Druke told the board on Thursday. "We're going to try to sit down and get a very composite plan of what it is we need to do for Hunter Brook and present it to FEMA anyway, even if they won't pay totally for it -- which is a good possibility."
Mack later said another bid-opening delay is possible "if we can't get an answer by the 18th."
The Hunter Brook delay has repercussions for Lynch Bridge. The town has accepted a bid by Brattleboro-based SVE Associates to design that span, but officials said they want to have their bridge-reimbursement questions answered first.
"Let us see where we come out on Hunter Brook, because the state is also going to give us some advice on Lynch Bridge," Druke said.
Mack added: "We're going to have to figure out our strategy on what to do next."
FEMA's Mace could not predict whether the Newfane projects will qualify for full reimbursement.
"Each project is different and will have to be evaluated on its own merits," Mace said, adding that "FEMA can't provide any sort of guidance to the town until we review the specifics of the project."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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