Letter to Shumlin asks for support in Vilas Bridge fight


ROCKINGHAM -- Hey, Gov. Shumlin, the town of Rockingham wants to talk to you about the Vilas Bridge.

The town's Selectboard this week authorized its chairman, Tom MacPhee, to sign a letter penned by Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance Executive Director Mary Helen Hawthorne and addressed to Montpelier to request a meeting with the governor regarding the bridge linking Vermont and New Hampshire.

Selectboard members voted unanimously to allow MacPhee to add his signature to the letter, which now goes to the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees, which will have an opportunity to authorize Village President Roger Riccio to sign it at a meeting slated for Tuesday.

Hawthorne wrote the letter to request a meeting with Shumlin either in his Montpelier office or at another location when he visits southern Vermont to discuss the future of the Vilas Bridge. The Selectboard also authorized Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II and Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh to sign the letter at the Rockingham Meeting House on Tuesday.

The Vilas Bridge was built around 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship between Vermont and New Hampshire and has become a source of controversy between the two states in recent years. Residents and merchants of Bellows Falls, the village at one end of the bridge, are frustrated over what they consider broken promises from New Hampshire about maintenance of the structure, 93 percent of which is owned by the Granite State.

The Vilas was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009, and residents are unhappy plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. At the time it was closed, a reported average of 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure every day and village residents now say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been cut off.

The bridge was originally slated for rehabilitation, but it was postponed until 2022 and the project has been taken off the state's 10-year plan. Out-of-towners entering the village from New Hampshire now cross the Arch Bridge and turn left if they want to go to The Square, the center of activity in Bellows Falls. Any vehicle would be able to make a right turn to get downtown if the Vilas was re-opened.

In the letter addressed to Shumlin, Hawthorne writes that the village's Central Business District has seen a 30 percent decrease in business.

"This is huge for a community that was beginning to show signs of recovery even in a difficult economy," she writes. "Many of our downtown businesses are showing signs of stress."

Hawthorne states Bellows Falls once flourished as a hub of paper and textiles mills. And downtown tax credits, as well as Vermont Transportation and downtown enhancement grants, have helped the village make strides toward its former glory.

She also tells Shumlin rehabilitation of the bridge is also a matter of safety. Bellows Falls is dependent upon Mutual Aid, as are the New Hampshire towns across the Connecticut River.

A Joint House Resolution (J.R.H. 7) calling for New Hampshire to conduct necessary engineering studies on the bridge and to carry out construction and restoration work in 2007 was offered by State Reps. Mike Obuchowski and Carolyn Partridge in 2006. It passed the Vermont House of Representatives on March 28, 2006, and was read and accepted by the Senate three days later, according to Hawthorne.

Walsh told the Reformer he has asked Hawthorne to write the letter to Shumlin.

The letter is scheduled to come up as part of the fourth item on the trustees' agenda Tuesday. The meeting, set to start at 6:30 p.m., will be held at in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theater.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.


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