Our opinion: An exceptional bridge for a spectacular view

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During Tuesday's dedication ceremony for the new I-91 bridge in Brattleboro, one speaker after the next agreed on two major points: The project was more arduous than anyone anticipated, but the end result is a beautiful span that will last for generations and serve as a welcoming gateway to Vermont.

The new concrete bridge that stretches over Route 30 and the West River replaces structurally deficient and functionally obsolete twin steel truss bridges that were built in 1958. The new bridge carries about 20,000 vehicles a day over four lanes of traffic, but will have the capacity of as many as eight lanes. The design will give maintenance crews the ability to shut down lanes for future work without impacting the commute.

The end result is an award-winning, 1,036-foot-long crossing dubbed "the bridge to nature" that's meant to blend with the surrounding hills while also symbolizing the state's history and natural beauty.

The job had more than its share of problems, however.

Caleb Linn, project manager for lead contractor PCL Civil Constructors, said he first mobilized a construction team for the project in June 2013. The initial schedule called for the bridge to be finished in late 2015, but that was pushed back several times due to difficulties such as permit holdups, bad weather, excavation issues and labor shortages. Those delays extended the project's traffic impacts, which included backups on I-91. Officials devised an elaborate system of on-ramp closures at Exit 3 to try and alleviate that problem, but that brought more traffic and headaches onto local roads.

The state Agency of Transportation and PCL held extended negotiations due to the schedule change and eventually reached a settlement that reduced the project's contract value by nearly $1.38 million while protecting the state from further delay-related costs.

The bridge project actually ran into potential roadblocks before anyone sunk a shovel into the ground. When the Vermont Agency of Transportation presented a design proposal to the community in 2012, it was widely and loudly panned. State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham County, minced no words when recalling that controversy. "When this design was first presented to us, it was butt-ugly," she said. "The community said, 'Holy smokes, we can't have that design here - this is our gateway, this is a beautiful area, we're a beautiful state.'"

Windham Regional Commission led an effort to incorporate more public input into the design, and a local aesthetic-evaluation committee formed to advise VTrans and contractors. Crews shaped more than 18,000 cubic yards of concrete into a curvy, elegant bridge supported on either side of the West River by arching "cathedral piers." Those 70-foot-tall concrete piers were built to resemble native stone, and they include observation platforms that feature design elements evoking maple, beech and white pine trees. The underside of the bridge was painted blue to simulate the sky, and it reflected rippling light from the West River during Tuesday's ceremony.

Of course, those extra design elements added to the overall cost of the bridge, which came in with a price tag of $60 million. The sticker shock that comes with such a large number is understandable, and some of our readers on Facebook complained about burdening Vermont taxpayers just to appease the "tree-huggers."

Cost should always factor into any taxpayer-funded project, but keep in mind that the cheapest price is not always the best value.

Yes, the design was enhanced to appease the tree-huggers, and that was precisely the point. Vermont is world renown for its breathtaking views and year-round recreational opportunities. The tourists who come to here for that very reason contribute millions of dollars to our state's economy.

As noted by State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro and a member of the House Transportation Committee, the new structure "frames and complements the confluence of the West River going into the Connecticut River" while making a positive impression on drivers, cyclists, swimmers, boaters and even hikers on the West River Trail.

What's more, they come to take pictures — selfies with the beautiful bridge and rolling green hills in the background — and post them on social media. The long-term benefits of that kind of marketing are invaluable.

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